Mental Illness Belongs In Schools

Schools are expected to do a lot of things for kids. We see them as a place to educate kids to be responsible citizens, to prepare them for college or to be able to get a job, to help them learn social skills, and even to give them a foundation for living healthy lives. Tall orders, certainly, but there does seem to be one very important thing that’s missing from most schools, that would not only be an important and useful addition on its own, but would help facilitate the other goals that schools have.

Schools should teach at least a basic program of mental health skills, drawn from either CBT or DBT (or a mix of both).

Schools already have accepted that they have some commitment to keeping kids healthy. Schools require phy ed classes and health classes to teach kids to be active and how to treat their bodies well. Michelle Obama has an entire campaign around bringing healthier foods into schools to teach kids good habits and give them the nutrition to focus properly during the day. And while some health classes do include a mental health component, it tends to focus on mental illnesses more than mental health, particularly around diagnoses and treatment. This might be helpful for some kids who are really struggling, but what it doesn’t do is provide kids with the concrete skills that they need to manage their emotional and mental health successfully, doing some preventative work against mental illness and improving quality of life for everyone.

It might seem like teaching kids how to feel is entirely inappropriate for schools, but we do have evidence based treatments that improve functioning for many, many people. Teachers already have to spend time teaching kids how to regulate their emotions and handle interpersonal problems simply in order to make the class a functional place. It would be helpful for everyone involved to have a more formalized curriculum that is evidence based and gives teachers and kids a common language to use when working on emotions or social skills.

Even if simply having happier, better functioning students isn’t enough of a motivation, we do know that people who are spending mental time and energy coping with anxiety, depression, or even non-diagnosable mental stress aren’t able to focus and succeed as well as they would if they weren’t dealing with these issues. Schools already provide counselors and other resources for students after mental health has become a problem. Why aren’t we doing any preventative work?

We have evidence that CBT can help lower anxiety for all students, and that DBT is extremely effective for adolescents with a wide variety of problems. One case study out of Portland using DBT showed decreases in anxiety and depression, as well as improved GPAs for most of the students who participated. There are not a lot of studies out there on the efficacy of CBT and DBT in schools simply because it hasn’t been tried in many places, but the evidence that we do have points towards fairly consistent improvements for young people who are given these skills.

So why does this matter to skeptics? Well we’re supposed to look at the evidence, and ideally, use that evidence to make society better. That’s more than just yelling when someone puts the ten commandments on public property: that’s advocating for real changes such as these that could help thousands of people. If we have evidence that there are ways we could improve grades, decrease serious escalations of mental illness such as suicide, decrease depression and anxiety, and potentially even help students from acting out in ways that will land them in trouble with authorities, why wouldn’t we do it?


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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