Washington Post

Why most schools don't teach about mental illness

Lorraine Kaplan had a son who was a star. At 17, he had top grades and was a debater and first trombonist in the school. But seemingly overnight, his brain turned on him. He became obsessive and then started hallucinating.

“The doctor told us he had schizophrenia and we would be walking on egg shells for the rest of our lives,” said Kaplan, of Long Island, N.Y. “He also told us, ‘I’m going to give you a good piece of advice. Don’t tell anyone.’”

She and her husband didn’t--for 10 years. The stigma seemed too much to handle. But one day they realized there were many other people in the same situation, and that “contributing to the silence,” as Kaplan says, was wrong.

So she became the most vocal of advocates, co-creating a program called “Breaking the Silence: Teaching the Next Generation About Mental Illness,” that is now being used in schools in every state and seven countries.

It is designed to teach that mental illness is a treatable brain disease, and the lesson plans--so far available for grades 4 and 5 and middle school-are aimed at developing greater tolerance for children with mental illness.

Unfortunately, she said, teaching about mental illness is not mandated in most states.

“It’s shocking,” she said. “Take New York state as an example. Every young man in New York has to learn how to test for cancer and disease of the testicles. But that is far less frequent than mental illness.”

Kaplan and her partner Janet Susin started the program about 15 years ago but met with a lot of resistance from principals who didn’t want the program in their schools.

Kaplan understood. She was a first- and second-grade teacher in Commack, Long Island, for 25 years and always was very close to her students and their families.

“Yet no one ever in those 25 years mentioned mental illness in their family,” she said. “I heard about a brain tumor, a broken leg, open heart operation.”

Today more schools are open to exposing children to the facts about mental illness, but, she said, the stima lives on.
Her son, Joel, died a few years ago from a heart attack at age 51.

Take a look at the following statistics and ask why it isn’t past time for mental illness to be part of health education everywhere. After all, if people can easily swap details about their sex lives and their net worth, surely we can start being more honest about mental illness.

*One in five people will suffer a severe mental illness at some point in his or her life, according to federal statistics. On average, one in five children in classrooms nationwide are likely living with someone who has a mental illness.

*Mental illness is second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability in this country and worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

*Four of the top 10 causes of lifetime disability are severe mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. The leading cause of disability is depression for ages 15-44, according to the National Institute on Mental Health.

*At any point in time, 1 in every 10 children and adolescents are affected by serious emotional disturbances, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

*Of those needing treatment, less than one in five people will receive it.

*Adolescents who may be experiencing a mental illness often turn to drugs and alcohol to self medicate, finding it more socially acceptable than going for treatment.

*Mental illnesses are biological-based brain disorders. They cannot be overcome by will power and are not related to a person’s character or intelligence.

Have your children ever been taught about mental illness in school? Do you think that they should? How big is the stigma?

var entrycat = 'Health' By Valerie Strauss  |  October 27, 2009; 6:30 AM ET