FEATURE

Demystifying the Mind

Across the country, educators are integrating mental health literacy into their curricula.
Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

Deborah and Willie Binion awoke at 2 a.m. one spring morning to find their son, Jordie (as they affectionately call him), standing outside with his guitars strapped to his body, “waiting for Drake and Eminem to pick him up.” Jordan Binion hadn’t yet been diagnosed with a mental illness, but based on delusional episodes and other symptoms, his parents suspected he might have been developing schizophrenia. 

The Binions immediately sought help for Jordan, but they soon found that the mental health system was complicated and filled with barriers. Their son was hospitalized days after that early morning incident, but since Washington state privacy laws allowed people age 13 and older to make decisions about their mental health treatment, he left the facility within 24 hours of arrival. Due to a shortage of mental health professionals, his first scheduled psychiatric appointment wouldn’t happen for months.

He didn’t make it. Jordan took his own life the day before the appointment—six days after his 17th birthday. 

The time between Jordan’s first signs of distress and his untimely death was short and agonizing for his family. “It was the worst time of my life, other than his death—to watch your child suffer, to watch your child clearly not well, and so helpless,” Deborah Binion recounts. 

She and her husband turned their grief into a mission—the Jordan Binion Project. 

 

The Project Becomes A Movement

The Binions began by flooding Washington state high schools with a PowerPoint presentation that detailed Jordan’s story and the importance of seeking help for a mental health issue. They researched mental health curricula available in the United States and, after failing to identify anything suitable, introduced a set of evidence-based mental health education resources widely used in Canada. The curriculum focuses on maintaining mental health, understanding mental disorders and their treatments, and learning how to decrease stigma and build help-seeking skills. The project has reached at least 106 school districts in Washington and continues to offer free training for teachers across the state. 

Deborah and Willie are part of a movement to improve mental health literacy among young people. Lawmakers are also taking notice. Two states—New York and Virginia—recently passed legislation to add mental health education to existing curricula. In New York, the new law requires that mental health education is integrated at the elementary, middle and high school levels. The Virginia law requires the inclusion of mental health education in a health class for ninth- and 10th-graders. 

Mental health awareness and destigmatization campaigns have existed for decades, but mental health advocates stress that this education must begin earlier in life. Students grapple with multiple stressors—defining their identities, coping with conflicts that might be happening at home, pushing through social anxieties—all while meeting academic and behavioral expectations. As many as 1 in 5 children between the ages of 3 and 17 have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that, in half of all lifetime cases, the onset of mental illness happens by age 14, and 75 percent of all chronic mental illness begins by age 24.

There is no sign that these figures are on the decline. According to the CDC, suicide rates increased by nearly 30 percent in the last two decades; suicide was the second-leading cause of death among young people in 2016. And between 2008 and 2015, the number of youth contemplating or attempting suicide almost doubled.

 

Setting An Example

Illustration of two people having a conversation with various multi-colored speech bubbles extending out in a line above them.

Niagara Falls City School District (NFCS) has been recognized by the New York State Office of Mental Health for their work in systematically creating a culture that values mental wellness as much as physical health and academic achievement. Superintendent Mark Laurrie had been working on initiatives to improve mental health literacy even before state legislators passed the new law last summer.  

But the district goes beyond teaching about mental health; it has adopted a framework that promotes a continuum of wellness from pre-K3 through high school. Mental, social and emotional support are included in the health and wellness curriculum, alongside physical fitness, nutrition and healthy behaviors. An emphasis on the connection between mind and body is rooted in the climate of NFCS schools. Teachers are trained in “mental health first aid” so they know how to respond in a crisis.  

“If a student is thinking about something outside of school with their own mental or physical health or pregnancy or what have you, they have no focus or concentration on the Pythagorean theorem or the religions of Southeast Asia,” Laurrie says. “They could[n’t] care less about that. They’re thinking about what’s on their mind now.”

Part of NFCS push to integrate mental health education and provide support stems from responses it received from a 2015 CDC survey, which looked at risk behaviors of youth in their city. The survey revealed that more than 19 percent of students surveyed had contemplated suicide, while 10 percent had actually attempted suicide.

“It was very clear to me, based on a couple of the indicators, that we needed to make some major changes ... and add programming to not only support better mental health but better health education in general,” Laurrie says. “[T]hat really was the kick in the pants, so to speak, to say, ‘We’ve got to get going on this.’”

Christine Barstys, an English teacher at Niagara Falls High School, leads a team of teachers, guidance counselors, a school psychologist and peer leaders in a program called Sources of Strength. The grant-funded program, now in its third year at the school, seeks to prevent suicide. Barstys invites organizations such as YWCA and the Niagara County Mental Health Board to talk to her ninth-grade students.

In her classroom instruction, she uses texts as springboards for discussions about mental health. For example, in reviewing the book Speak—which deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide—her class has an opportunity to delve into those issues.

We needed to make some major changes and add programming to not only support better mental health but better health education in general.

Laurrie says since they’ve made mental health education a priority, he’s already noticed a shift at the school. 

“It’s not something that people or kids are afraid to talk about or address or have programs for, so the stigma is really starting to lessen,” he says. “Secondly, it’s forced us to create just as many programs to support kids in the community in the areas of mental health as we do in the areas of academics.”

The new law in Virginia was inspired by three high school students who saw the need to address students’ mental health and to reduce stigma. They appealed to their state senator, Creigh Deeds, who also wanted to prioritize mental health education. It was personal for him. In 2013, his son, who’d been diagnosed with a mental disorder, died by suicide. 

Like those in New York, some Virginia schools were already taking steps to emphasize the importance of mental wellness. Leaders in Winchester Public Schools, for example, knew many of their students were struggling silently and welcomed the additional support. 

“I think that we’re looking at so many environmental impacts that weigh heavier and heavier on our children,” says Judy McKiernan, director of student services at Winchester Public Schools. “The increase in stress, the impact of social media messages  [and] economic issues that our community continues to feel, even 10 years after the recession. We have a large opioid epidemic situation in our community and in our surrounding region, and that’s resulted in extreme family dysfunction.”

Winchester schools are part of a health district where 20.6 percent of middle school students and 12.7 percent of high school students have seriously considered suicide, according to a recent community-needs assessment. Suicide screenings have been on the uptick for at least the last three years. So Winchester administrators improved how they identify problems and make referrals to counselors. They also made sure counselors were following the American School Counselor Association model for best practices.

 

Looking Ahead

So far, New York and Virginia are the only states to mandate mental health education in schools. However, more schools across the country are assessing the role they should play in supporting the complete health of students. Often, this takes the shape of offering more mental health services. In Utah, one school district plans to employ a full-time psychologist at each of its 36 elementary schools. Louisiana and South Dakota schools recently secured federal dollars for mental health support. But, increasingly, conversations are including mental health education, like the governor-led task force in Pennsylvania that not only recommends improving access to mental health services but also expanding standards to address social, mental and emotional health for students from pre-K through 12th grade.  

“I think that you’re going to see a great shift in the purpose of public education in the coming years,” Laurrie says. “Kids can learn in various ways: on their phones, on their computers, et cetera. What they can’t learn on their phones and on their computers is how to get along with each other, how to resolve problems, how to handle crises—all these mental health issues. I think it’s going to become more and more the role of the school.”

That’s exactly what the Binion family is hoping for. While they understand firsthand that the mental health system is broken, they believe young people like Jordan may have a better chance of survival if they find hope in early learning about mental illness and about how people can live productive and successful lives despite it. 

They are now seeing the impact their son’s story has on hundreds of students who write letters to the Jordan Binion Project, saying they are inspired by their message of hope—that they know they’re not alone in their journey. 

Jordan once told his mother he’d change the world one day. In that moment, she didn’t know how prophetic those words were. 

“At that time, I was like, ‘All right, Jordie.’ But now he is changing the world,” she says. “My hope is that, through this project, we can change the mental health of this nation; that kids are going to get in, they’re going to get evaluated, they’re going to get treated early. It’s going to change their path in life. And it’s going to save lives, and that’s what I want. I want Jordie’s memory to be kept alive and his legacy to be that he helped change the mental health of the nation.”

Dillard is the staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.

What the Stats Say...

30%

Suicide rates have increased by nearly 30 percent across all age groups in the last two decades. (CDC)

 

20%

As many as one in five children between ages 3 and 17 have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder. (CDC)

 

75%

In 75 percent of all lifetime cases, the onset of mental illness happens by age 24. (NAMI)

 

70%

70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness. (NAMI)

Build resilience in your school community.

View Toolkit