The Importance of Mental Health in the Classroom: How Reading and Writing Improves Wellness

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By Hannah White

In school I remember learning about variables and exponents and how to find the slope of a line. When someone mentions the word mitochondria a little voice in my head immediately shouts “powerhouse of the cell!” And I can recite an impressive amount of the digits of Pi, but as I reached young adulthood I was left feeling surprised at just how little I knew about things that mattered in my life. And while I’m extremely grateful for the education I did receive and for the amazing educators I’ve learned from, I can’t help but wonder why they don’t teach you in school how to deal with the loss of a loved one, or about the transition from childhood to young adulthood, how to foster healthy relationships and cope with difficult emotions and situations that are bound to come up in everyone’s life, alongside teaching rote memorization of U.S. capitals.

Mental Health in Schools

The importance of mental and emotional health, especially in children and young adults, is unquestionable. Students often spend more time in school with their teachers and peers than they do with their own families, making schools ideal settings for students to learn about mental health and develop healthy coping skills and behaviors. Students have less disciplinary issues when schools support social and emotional well-being. Not only that, but students from supportive schools typically can focus more on school work and can develop skills to communicate better, all which can translate to improved academic outcomes and overall better health later in life. Kaiser Permanente Thriving Schools developed a program called Resilience in School Environments (RISE) which aims to empower schools to create healthy learning environments by cultivating practices that strengthen the emotional and social health of both students and staff. Some of their practices include restorative justice to prevent bullying, and utilizing positive behavioral interventions and support (PBIS).

While I do remember briefly learning about emotional and social well-being in health class when my teacher covered topics like bullying and depression, I don’t recall learning about specific resources or understanding how mental health is equally important as physical health for everyone, and not just an issue for people with official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) diagnoses. Mental health has often been treated as something that you need to worry about after the fact, something allusive and secretive, something you just hope you’ll never have to deal with, but proper mental health education should be focused on prevention and reducing stigma. 

A Problem that Needs Solving

Schools in America are stretched thin when it comes to tackling this pressing issue of mental health. According to a brief from the American Institutes for Research, millions of American students suffer from mental health problems, yet only a fraction are receiving necessary treatment. Kevin Mahnken from the 74 Million explained, “Sixty-two percent of college students reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” over the previous year in 2016, up from 50 percent just five years prior. More alarming still, hospitalizations for mood disorders among children ages 17 and under leaped by 68 percent between 1997 and 2011.” This isn’t just a problem for a small percentage of American students, this is a crisis that is affecting a vast amount of children and young adults across the country.

Reading and Writing promotes Wellness

I don’t remember ever feeling like I got much out of my health class education when I was in school, but I do remember feeling a connection to my personal life and learning about things that I thought mattered in another class, and that was English Lit. Independent reading was the closest thing to meditation and self reflection practices I ever got in public school. Talking about important issues like race and class inequality, the emotional toll of living in poverty, and the importance of mental health came up when my class and I read A Raisin in the Sun or Catcher in the Rye. When we wrote close reading papers or had class discussions about important themes like this we learned that we had a voice, that our words had power.

I think this deep connection I felt to myself and others when studying English is why I ended up pursuing an English degree in college, and then later a psychology degree alongside it. And I’m not alone in my feelings when it comes to this. In a study conducted by the Reading Agency and summarized by the Independent, reading for pleasure can reduce symptoms of depression, increase self esteem, help build better relationships with others, and reduce anxiety and stress. Reading helps you gain intelligence, empathy, and perspective. It’s even suggested that reading for pleasure can prevent Alzheimer’s and reduce memory decline by more than 30%. Journaling and writing is also proven to boost mood, enhance sense of well being, and reduce intrusion and avoidance symptoms post-trauma. Writing allows you to connect with your creative side and become more attuned to your thoughts and feelings; it’s a form of creative catharsis.

5 Books about Mental Health for your Home or Classroom

Not only are books in general great tools for self-reflection and deep thinking, there are also a wide variety of books for young students focused specifically on topics like coping with anxiety or dealing with bullying that are great resources for parents or teachers that want to make mental health a priority for their children.

1. How Big Are Your Worries Little Bear? By Jayneen Sanders, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

“Little Bear is a worrier. He worries about everything! But with Mama Bear’s help, he soon learns his worries are not so big after all. Through this engaging and beautifully illustrated story, children will learn that everyday worries and fears can be overcome. It just takes a willingness to share with a helpful listener, and an understanding that making mistakes is how we learn. Also included are Discussion Questions for parents, caregivers and educators, and extra hints to help children manage anxiety.”

2. Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

“Audrey wears dark glasses all the time, even in the house. She almost never goes out, doesn’t talk to new people, and finds making eye contact to be nearly impossible. But then one day she meets Linus. Linus is her brother’s friend and a sensitive spirit with whom she can talk through her fears. He makes her laugh and doesn’t leave her feeling like she’s being judged. As their friendship deepens, Audrey’s recovery gains momentum, and she and Linus begin to develop feelings for each other. But how can they have a future together when Audrey hasn’t dealt with her past? And how could anyone ever love her once they’ve seen her at her worst?”

3. Some Kind Of Happiness by Claire Legrand

“Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real—and holds more mysteries than she’d ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones. With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself.”

4. What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety Written by Dawn Huebner, illustrated by Bonnie Matthews

What to Do When You Worry Too Much guides children and parents through the cognitive-behavioral techniques most often used in the treatment of anxiety. Lively metaphors and humorous illustrations make the concepts and strategies easy to understand, while clear how-to steps and prompts to draw and write help children to master new skills related to reducing anxiety. This interactive self-help book is the complete resource for educating, motivating, and empowering kids to overcome their overgrown worries.”

5. Am I a Bully? Written by Hope Gilchrist, illustrated by Zoe Jordon

“This book was written to bring awareness to bullying with young children. It helps explain the different ways bullying can be displayed. It also helps show that people can change their behavior at any time.”

For more resources on social and emotional health for your home or classroom visit this site. And if you or someone you know is facing immediate harm because of suicidal or homicidal thoughts or actions, call (800) 273-8255.

Hannah White is an editorial intern at Literary Traveler. She graduated with a degree in English and psychology from Bridgewater State University, and is currently pursuing her Masters of Arts degree in English with a concentration in literature and film. Hannah has experience writing for a nonprofit organization and is interested in working in the book publishing industry. She loves dystopian literature that feels eerily real; one of her favorite novels is The Handmaid’s Tale. She loves traveling; one of her favorite places she’s ever visited is Florence, Italy because of its rich art history and beautiful architecture.

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