“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shames us all”.
Schools are microcosm of the larger society and our society faces an epidemic of mental illness. It is estimated that 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem — more than one in every 16, and that 5 to 10% of the population suffer from clinical depression at any given time. Many of these problems begin early: 50% of all mental health disorders begin before age 14 and 75% before the age of 25 (World Health Organization).
According to a 2006 survey on the mental health of Canadians, 19.8% of women and 17.5% of young men between the ages of 15-24 suffer from an anxiety or mood disorder, while suicide is the cause of 1/5 of all the deaths of young people. Stress is a major factor influencing mental health and “school” was identified by most young people in the survey as the leading cause of their stress. For many young people, school is an enriching experience, but too many others face criticism and exclusion. Boys are more likely to feel that they do not belong in school and this peaks in grades 8 and 9, where 23% of boys felt that they did not fit in at their school (Read the survey by clicking here).
Experiencing violence, inequality and social exclusion puts one at higher risk for developing a mental illness. First Nations people in Canada have a suicide rate that is 5-6 times the national average (Health Canada). Young, gay men are 2-3 more likely to attempt suicide. (Gilchrist and Sullivan in Culture, Health and Sexuality 8.3). New research has shown that the impact of violence in early life, including child abuse and bullying, extends to our very genetic makeup, making one more susceptible to developing certain illnesses, including anxiety and depression, as well as heart disease and certain types of cancer (“Violence Can Alter Chidren’s DNA,” The Montreal Gazette 25 April 2012). All of this points to an essential role for education, not only in providing information on healthy lifestyles and providing support for those in psychological difficulty, but also in challenging the stigma that surrounds mental illness and in promoting a more caring and less violent society.