Mental Health Matters, a middle school-based mental health program, is successfully educating students about mental illness and helping to reduce the associated stigma, according to a new study published in the Journal of School Health.
Today, the Mental Health Matters program is in place in 35 classrooms in Santa Barbara County, California. Its focus is on helping sixth graders learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of six major mental illnesses: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and stress disorders, major depression, bipolar disorders, eating disorders and schizophrenia.
The program was developed by Ann Lippincott, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of education at the University of California (UCSB) Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. Lippincott’s daughter was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder just out of college, and ever since, she has devoted her time and energy to teaching others about mental illness, with the hope of reducing the stigma too often associated with it.
“We would like to believe that by educating young people before stigma has reared its ugly head — knowing that stigma is the number one reason people do not get the help they need and deserve — our efforts are making the difference we were hoping they would make,” said Lippincott.
Lippincott worked on behalf of the Mental Wellness Center in Santa Barbara to develop the program which was introduced in schools nine years ago. The series of five, one-hour lessons is integrated into the sixth-grade Language Arts curriculum.
The goal is to increase the students’ understanding of mental illness, reduce the associated stigma, and share wellness practices.
But does the program actually work? Until now, teachers and advocates of the program had only anecdotal evidence that the curriculum was working. Therefore, Hannah Weisman, a doctoral student in the Department of Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology at UCSB, designed a study to find out.
Weisman conducted the study with her graduate advisor, Dr. Maryam Kia-Keating, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology.
According to Kia-Keating, the researchers saw an increase in the students’ knowledge of mental illness and a decrease in the stigma associated with it.
In open-ended questions, for example, students wrote comments such as, “I used to think that people with mental health disorders are the ones to blame for their disorder; now I know that it is not the person’s fault and they have not done anything wrong,” and, “I used to think mental health disorders are contagious; now I know they are not.”
According to the researchers, approximately 22 percent of children will develop a mental health disorder with severe impairment by the time they reach 18, and it’s likely most adolescents will encounter a peer with a mental health disorder.
“I’m definitely a fan,” Kia-Keating said of the Mental Health Matters program. “We were very excited to find such an innovative program that was embedded in the school curriculum and was addressing mental health issues, in particular how we reduce stigma, and how we start early.”
“Mental health issues are part of life,” Kia-Keating continued. “I think the more that we’re able to talk about mental health in an open way, have kids be able to have their questions answered, and not have it be a topic that’s hidden from them, is essential.”