Last week was sweet for me. I was a guest at the biannual meeting of the Florida Partnership for Healthy Schools (FPHS) put together by the Florida Department of Education, and while I was participating and immersing in the latest data on Social Emotional Learning, Penny Taylor, Director of Healthy Schools, Bureau of Standards and Instructional Support, announced to us that the Florida Department of Education approved a rule requiring school districts to provide five hours of instruction related to mental and emotional health for grades 6-12.  This was music to my ears! We have all heard that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this for me is a monumental step.

Many of you who receive my newsletter know that my ultimate heroic mission is to see emotional literacy (EL) as an integral part of education one day.  Just like all children have math, science, and language arts, they too will receive EL. After all, happiness is a skill that can be taught and we have completely forgotten to include the most important class in our children’s education. This is not a lesson we can leave for parents to provide at-home when statistics tell us that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year.

I got very excited when our Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said recently, “This is just the beginning. It’s no secret that mental illness robs students of the ability to reach their full potential, and we are joining forces to combat this disease and give our students the tools they need to thrive.  We are going to reinvent school-based mental health awareness in Florida, and we will be the number one state in the nation in terms of mental health outreach and school safety – all because of the Governor’s and First Lady’s remarkable vision. As usual, we will be a model of innovation and reform for other states to mimic.  First Lady DeSantis has taken the lead to get the ball rolling with her recent Hope for Healing launch, and we are building on the momentum of her great leadership.”  

I am very optimistic that we will use all our knowledge and experience of what has worked before and put it into action. We must be very cognizant of not losing this great opportunity to teach all our children grades 6-12 that thoughts are related to emotions, and that we must guide them on how to develop the right thought patterns to avoid self-defeating behaviors later in life. Teaching them a framework that helps to establish the correct thought patterns from the beginning of life will help us reduce our current mental health crisis.

We have seen very poor results with many campaigns in the past designed to discourage the use of illegal drugs. Studies funded by the National Institutes of Health showed no favorable effects on youth’s behavior and may have actually prompted some to experiment with drugs.

Isn’t it terrifying that if we do not use the correct messages and programs with children, we could increase our suicide rates?

“What we focus on the longest, grows the strongest,” I say frequently to my patients. I fear that if children begin to hear “suicide prevention”, “mental health prevention” more frequently, it may have the opposite effect if a substitute tool is not provided.

Our students must understand that we all experience fear, sadness and desperation. Their feelings and humanity must be validated, but they must also be given a potent bag of tools, a substitute to help them change and perceive their current situation.

Let’s not make the mistake of just focusing on the symptoms, on the illness, on suicide prevention, because they may start seeing it as a greater option. If I tell a child not to think about delicious ice cream, I can assure you they will think and crave the ice cream. They will not think about a plate of broccoli.

Many times, I drive by a school that has this sign NO HATE and it makes me cringe.

I don’t think that the first thing that comes to the students’ minds when they read this is compassion, caring, respect, kindness, self-worth, or that we are all connected.  

With our current mental health crisis, we cannot lose perspective and allow ourselves to just react. The consequences could be atrocious. We must begin to teach our children that they are inherently good, happy and whole.