We all know that education is incredibly important for a child’s development. But did you know that the time between toddlerhood and the teenage years (also known as “middle childhood”) is actually the best period for learning? According to anthropologist Benjamin Campbell, the human brain during this time is “organized enough to attempt mastery, yet still fluid, elastic, neuronally gymnastic. “In other words, the brain is developed enough to understand information and absorbent enough to retain it—often for life.
Some parents capitalize on this time by teaching their child a second language, while schools teach the dangers of drugs and alcohol or the benefits of healthy eating and exercise. Kids in middle childhood are fed a great deal of information in the hopes of teaching them life skills and healthy habits while their brains are ripe for learning.
But a critical piece is missing from all this information, something that many parents don’t know how to teach their kids, something that isn’t part of most school’s curricula: mental health.
We cannot forget about mental health. Parents, teachers, all of us should focus on providing youth with the resources and information they need to get help if they are experiencing mental health issues or having thoughts of suicide. To do that, we need resources like NAMI Ending the Silence.
What We Learn Becomes Who We Are
NAMI Ending the Silence (NAMI ETS) is a free, 50-minute presentation/program that helps middle and high school students understand mental illness. The program teaches them common warning signs and when, where and how to get help for themselves or their friends. “We’re just trying to prepare young people so they know that they can talk to somebody about what they are feeling and reach out to a trusted adult for help,” says NAMI ETS Program Manager Jennifer Rothman. “Educating students about what mental health conditions are, what they look like and what kind of symptoms you might see is the key to prevention and early intervention.”
Early intervention is essential to improving long-term outcomes for young people with serious mental illness. Once a student, administrator or family member viewing this presentation learns how to spot the warning signs of psychosis or other severe symptoms, they will know what it is and how to intervene.
The program also helps young people become more understanding and empathetic toward those who struggle with mental illness. During the presentation, they hear the reality of what having a mental health condition is like directly from a young adult with lived experience. By teaching kids to be more empathetic, we are building a generation wherein stigma will lose its power.
Take, for example, an excerpt from a student’s thank-you letter to her class’s NAMI ETS presenters:
“Your presentation had a huge impact on us, and that’s not something that happens often with high schoolers and guest speakers. Personally, I cannot relate, and I am grateful to currently not have any mental illnesses. But my friend has been dealing with depression and it is usually under control, but she goes through periods of time where it gets worse, and she feels like no one is there for her. I’ve tried to do my best to help her, but I had no idea what it was like to feel that way. Thank you for giving me perspective on how horrible these issues can be, and what to do when these situations arise.”
This is why NAMI Ending the Silence should be more accessible and widespread—so millions of teenagers will know how to help themselves and their loved ones now and in the future. NAMI has been expanding this vital program nationwide with the help of Tipper Gore, a former second lady of the U.S., who gifted NAMI $1 million to support this effort.
Proving Why Students Need NAMI ETS
Getting NAMI Ending the Silence into schools can sometimes be a daunting process, which is why in 2015, NAMI started the research needed to apply to the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP) with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Rothman explains that when programs have a designation as an evidence-based practice (EBP), it “shows that the program has validity and actually works.”
To achieve the goal of gaining EBP status, NAMI conducted studies throughout 2016. In the first study, 10 schools from five different areas of the U.S. participated. Altogether, 932 students took a three-part survey measuring their knowledge and attitudes related to mental illness. Half of the students then viewed NAMI ETS, while the other half did not. The results found that knowledge and attitudes improved for the NAMI ETS group and stayed elevated weeks after the presentation. The non-NAMI ETS group stayed the same.
These results were consistent across different studies, different presenters and different schools, and among the diverse populations within those schools. The studies suggest that NAMI ETS is consistently effective in improving students’ knowledge and attitudes about mental health conditions and in recognizing help-seeking behaviors. With these impressive results, NAMI has completed its application to NREPP and is awaiting a reply in 2018.
Making An Impact
If we fail to teach the younger generations about mental health, they may struggle alone rather than talk to people who can help them. They may feel ashamed for what they experience rather than know it’s not their fault. They may even take their lives.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people aged 10–14 and the second leading cause of death for people aged 15–24. We cannot ignore these facts, so we must better equip students with the tools needed to ask for help.
And rather than have a mental health specialist come in and talk to students post-tragedy—as is often the case in communities around the nation—NAMI ETS aims to prevent these tragedies from happening at all. With NAMI Ending the Silence, we are working to prevent a generation from struggling in silence.
By Laura Greenstein