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Wisconsin Schools To Implement Mental Health Curriculum

Armen Hareyan's picture

Mental Health Awareness Month

Wisconsin Department of Health announced Wisconsin's Toolkit for Mental Health in Schools in conjunction with the May observance of Mental Health Awareness Month.

"We must promote a better understanding of student mental health issues in Wisconsin," Burmaster said. "Too often students encounter significant barriers to learning and can become isolated and frustrated in school due to a lack of understanding of mental health and mental illness."

"One in every five children and adolescents experience mental health problems each year such as depression, eating disorders, or general anxiety; and they should not suffer in silence," said Hayden. "This new toolkit will provide students and teachers with ways to recognize signs and symptoms and reduce the stigma associated with mental health so students get the help they need."

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Hayden noted that the impact of mental health issues goes beyond the student and significantly affects the teachers, classrooms, school staff, students, and their families and communities. "Research shows that schools that promote mental health awareness report higher academic achievement, lower absenteeism, and fewer behavior problems. Identifying issues early is key to improving outcomes for students, families, schools, and communities. The toolkit will be a valuable asset in identifying and helping our students," he said.

Wisconsin's Toolkit for Mental Health in Schools includes an "Issues in Mental Health/Mental Illness Awareness" curriculum. The curriculum helps eighth- through 10th-grade students learn to deal with friends who may have mental health problems and develop skills to help build a mentally healthy school. The curriculum provides a set of skill-building lessons that teach students to understand mental illnesses as treatable health conditions without accepting myths about people who have mental illness. The curriculum adds skills in recognizing a continuum for mental health and mental illness and that negative perceptions about children/youth who have mental illness must be reduced to have a healthy, positive, and supportive school for students and staff. The materials outline real-life situations so students can role-play and practice communication skills that are effective with peers who may have mental health problems.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, in partnership with the Department of Health and Family Services and other school and community partners, including the Mental Health Association in Wisconsin, developed the toolkit. It addresses data from national reports indicating that mental health challenges in children and youth have increased substantially over the past decade. The DPI and state's 12 cooperative educational service agencies (CESAs) piloted the toolkit and curriculum last year.

"Our partnership in the development and promotion of the toolkit and curriculum supports teachers, staff, and students with an activity-driven approach," Burmaster said. "These materials increase awareness, understanding, and recognition of mental health issues, and help schools to take appropriate steps for prevention, early intervention, and accommodation, if needed. The curriculum and activities help schools create positive climates for enhancing social and emotional development and contributing to our New Wisconsin Promise to provide a quality education for every child."

The toolkit is introduced in a full-day training session where school staff members learn that mental health and mental illness exist across a continuum, how to identify and help students, and how to avoid stigmatizing people with mental illnesses. The toolkit also includes a system for pupil services staff to work with administrators in reducing barriers presented by mental illness. The classroom curriculum includes television episodes that illustrate how people with mental illness can live successfully and make contributions to society and their communities.

"The stigma associated with mental illness has a detrimental effect on all students," Burmaster said. "It impacts the academic and social atmosphere of the school. It interferes with students' connections with school, their engagement with the curriculum, and their ability to learn. A strong understanding of mental health and mental illness is important to building a healthy school environment that supports academic achievement for all students."