Erin McClintock and John Doran

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we acted to secure our physical safety – physical distancing, staying at home, shuttering businesses and schools. Now, with spiking levels of stress and anxiety after many weeks of self-isolation, it’s evident that our mental stability is also in need of some dire attention.

Most vulnerable are our young people who lack the mental health skills to safely navigate this physical and, now, emotional crisis. America’s youth at a critical age, are suddenly stripped of in-person connection to friends and rites of passage like proms and graduations. Compounding this, they no longer have access to many of the protective factors that come with attending school in-person such as access to in-school counselors, teachers who can watch for signs of potential distress, and the chance to interact with peers face-to-face.

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Mental health risks are highest among teens and young adults, with 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses developing by age 14 and 75% developing by age 241. Unfortunately, after the onset of symptoms, most young people wait an average of 11 years to seek treatment. This can be attributed to, among other things, lack of awareness, cost, access to counseling resources, and stigma. But, with early education and awareness, our most vulnerable youth can overcome these hurdles.

Yet, only nine states legally mandate that schools teach mental health curriculum. Among the states with the highest rates of death by suicide among adolescents in the U.S. – Alaska, New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming – only New Mexico requires mental health education. Worse, 20 states don’t even require school counselors.

Long before COVID-19, teachers rated mental health as the most pressing issue burdening our students. Now, new research proves that this issue is even more critical today, not surprisingly, as stay-at-home students conduct their daily interactions digitally and miss the vital physical and emotional stimulation from peers, teachers, coaches, counselors, and other caring adults. A recent survey of more than 11,000 K-12 students ages 13 and older, conducted after stay-at-home orders went into effect, revealed that 38% are more concerned about their mental well-being and 51% report being more stressed. The survey also reported that 39% feel lonelier now.

To combat the stigma of mental illness and recognize how to combat mental health challenges, young adults, parents, and teachers must be equipped with the right language, tools, and tactics. Introducing mental health education at a young age, before the onset of illness, enables us to mitigate both emotional and financial costs. In learning that they are not alone in the battle over stress, anxieties, or doubts, youth may feel more accepted and more willing to ask for help. Moreover, with research showing that Americans spend more money out-of-pocket on mental health treatment than on physical illnesses, early intervention through education has the capacity to save individuals, local communities, cities, and states a significant amount of money.

COVID-19 shines a spotlight on a pre-pandemic issue that will both outlive and be magnified by the virus: the vital need for accessible, no-cost mental health resources to be proactively taught across schools nationwide. By offering education on the basic principles of mental health and how to strengthen it as a preventive health and safety measure for young adults, we can help to redirect a treacherous trend of increased joblessness, addiction, crime and abuse, and neglect of children due to unchecked mental illness.

By investing in mental health education and services, we impact people now because they have the tools they need to manage challenges that may arise later. This, in turn, positively impacts society economically as well as socially. According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion a year in lost productivity. For every $1 spent on effective social-emotional learning programming, the return on investment is $11 in long term benefits (to students, communities, and schools).

We require education on a variety of topics to strengthen our intellect: math, science, reading, and social studies. Learning the skills to protect our brain should also be an essential component of education. Integrating an evidence-based mental health curriculum into America’s public schools has the real potential to save lives by enabling teens and adolescents to better recognize mental health issues among themselves and their peers and take steps to get help.

This was originally posted to on July 10, 2020

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Erin McClintock is Senior Director of Impact and Education and resident mental health subject matter expert at EVERFI, a social impact education company that offers free digital learning on mental health, and prescription drug safety, sexual assault prevention, and many other critical life issues, for more than 41 million kids and adults.

John Doran is the Divisional Vice President of External Affairs at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, which sponsors EVERFI Mental Health Basics in Montana as part of its Big Blue Sky Initiative, designed to address the Social Determinants of Health and help Montanans achieve their healthiest lives.