As a kid, I played a board game called “Life” with my parents.
Each player could make decisions about the course of their life that would lead them along a different path. I always chose to go to college, hoped to pull a “good” career card with high pay, and waited with anticipation to add the additional pink and blue pieces to my car that meant I had a partner and children to tow along the rest of my “Life” journey. It was calculated. It was simple. It’s how 8-year-old me thought life would unfold.
Spoiler alert: my real life did not unfold this way. Nor do I wish it had.
This simple board game does not capture the experiences, joys, or challenges that encompass real lives.
Nowhere along the game board would one see “Lose your scholarship. Withdraw from semester and skip next turn”. There are no cards that read “struggle with your identity“ or “have trouble cultivating friendships”. There certainly is not a path for navigating chronic depression, experiencing home sickness, losing peers to suicide, traveling the world, discovering new interests, or having difficulty finding employment after years of higher education and several degrees.
These experiences are common for today’s young people but are seldom represented.
Experiences that make us who we are and continue to inform the work that we do and the lives that we build are never discussed or introduced in this game.
Or in school.
I was fortunate enough to have parents, a sibling, friends and mentors who did help me navigate real life and who continue to teach me, support me, and inspire me. I developed interests and skills that help me cultivate my own mental health and wellbeing. I acknowledge my unique privilege in having unconditional support and in being able to explore these topics through my own educational pursuits.
However, not all young people have this opportunity.
One in five children ages 13-18 will have a mental illness and 50% of students with mental illness ages 14 and older will drop out of high school. College students with mental illness are significantly more likely to withdraw before completing a degree and suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24 (1).
The messages and lessons we learn in school do not prepare us for real life. The responsibility of addressing mental health and wellbeing has been shuffled along, much like the game pieces of “Life” I used to play.
We have enormous expectations of young people, but we do not prepare them to succeed. Some high school students move on to college and some college students become adults who go out into the world lacking skills because they’ve never been taught to take care of themselves. Students may be brilliant – they can compose a symphony or ace any chemistry exam – but if they haven’t learned how to take care of themselves and manage their wellbeing, their gifts become a lot less useful to themselves and a lot less impactful for the world.
Universities have often claimed that teaching life skills is not part of their responsibility. But whose responsibility is it?
Students are taught how to draw parabolas and calculate a hypotenuse, but not how to develop a toolbox of skills to support a lifetime of health and wellbeing. Health classes deliver strong messages of abstinence and the dangers of substance use, but don’t seek to help students foster positive mental health and wellbeing. Issues related to identity, LGBTQIA+ communities, advocacy and health promotion are often relegated to extracurricular interest groups. What if, instead, they were embedded into core curricula in a way that communicates an institutional priority of mental health and wellbeing?
People, particularly developing young minds, learn from what is modeled; we are taught by what we observe. By not prioritizing wellbeing in educational settings, we are teaching young people that mental health does not matter.
For the educational system to serve its mission “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness,” it must actually prepare students for real life and ensure equity through mental health support (2). This requires a paradigm shift, a true change in the priorities, services and curricula that educational institutions provide.
As I think about the role of education, I replay this ideal in my mind: “Society is best served by assisting all of us in maintaining mental health, rather than trying to foresee which of us is most likely to act out when mental health support is not readily available” (3).
We are supposedly investing in institutions to educate young minds and prepare people to be successful adults.
But how can any institution truly claim to be providing a comprehensive education if they don’t address, teach and prioritize mental health and wellbeing?
Dr. Leah Goodman is a licensed occupational therapist and yoga instructor in Chicago, Illinois. Her recent doctoral work focused on building supportive and mental health programming for college students, particularly through the development of courses to address wellbeing. Leah is a member of Mental Health America’s Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council. For inquiries and collaboration contact LeahGoodman91@gmail.com