A case for “positive education”

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A case for “positive education”

Vincent Patierno, Editor in Chief

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When I first took on the long and tedious process of publishing my first book in the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I hardly knew what I was getting myself into. All I knew was I thought I had something valuable to share with others. What came next after holding those few hundred pages in my fingertips is something that has taken me years to verbalize. What I learned after being asked countless times, “what’s it about?” or “why did you write it?” through both my own self-exploration and months of in depth research was a series of life virtues and pillars that I will live by until the end of my time. What is important to grasp as well is most of what I share is not exclusive, nor is it rare. Mental Health America found that in 2018, forty-three million Americans suffer from some form of mental health condition. Moreover, the youth population affected by mental health conditions increased from 5.9% to 8.2% in a five year (2013-2018) span (Mental Health America). What I did not know at the time is what to call the emotions I was experiencing. Depression and anxiety are all too common in today’s American society–particularly amongst youth populations (Mental Health America). And in an age where an overabundance of disconnection, social haste, and tribal behavior appear dominate in American society, it is only logical to discuss the necessity of constructing an authentic framework for fostering connection, support, and belonging within schools and school communities. This document seeks to not just address the contemporary quarrels that exist within the oft-complex system of school-based mental health supports in the United States–but to provide an evidence-based theoretical framework to shape the future of in-school culture, particularly involving those suffering from mental conditions.  

Following the Parkland shooting in Florida in early 2018, I was a part of a group of students from Canfield High School in Canfield, Ohio who reached out to state lawmakers in hopes of substantive change regarding school-based mental health practices (132nd Ohio House of Representatives, Bill No. 713). The research currently available strongly supports the notion that school-based prevention and intervention systems are desperately needed (Reinke), however, less commonly examined is the level of discrimination that exists toward students that exhibit signs of–or discuss their mental disorder (e.g. depression, anxiety, autism, etc.). Studies by Heary et al. (2017) state that these complex subjects are better understood in adult populations and require additional research for understanding in adolescent populations. This discrimination, closely defined across the literature alongside “stigma,” refers to the social discreditation of an individual or individuals based upon the belief that he or she possess an undesirable attribute (Heary et al., 2017). At large, those who experience stigma often fail to follow through with seeking out treatment due to fear of becoming discriminated against by family-care physicians, mental health professionals, family members, and friends (Collins et al., 2012). A growing body of research, such as findings from Corrigan (2004), paint a rather troubling landscape for the understanding of mental illness: perceived attitudes and generalized stigma are shown to be the very seeds of future discriminatory behavior or action. There are also patient-reported scenarios where care-seekers have described discrimination by health providers, employers, and landlords (Shrivastava et al., 2013; Thornicroft et al., 2007). A staggering 46% of those who sought out treatment or disclosed their illness described circumstances of discrimination (Shrivastava et al., 2013). Additionally common is a phenomenon known as “self-stigma,” or “self-discrimination.” In these cases, the person who is experiencing a lapse in mental health or behavior begin to internalize false public attitudes regarding their illness (Corrigan and Rao, 2012). Furthermore, there is a wealth of negative consequences associated with cases of self-discrimination, such as heightened risk of suicide (Corrigan, Druss, and Perlick, 2014). This occurs most notably within persons diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychosis. Research supports that these individuals are highly susceptible to endorsing misinformed public perceptions regarding their condition as their own beliefs (Corrigan and Rao, 2012). Several studies conducted on the subjects of stigma and discrimination holistically support the fact that those who stigmatize are, in most cases, moderated by a series of false knowledge or misguided cultural relevance concerning mental illness or behavior health (Corrigan, Druss, and Perlick, 2015). The facts presented herein all point to a singular conclusive suggestion for future direction: the public is terribly misguided and often misinformed when it comes matters concerning mental health. That said, coupled with the examination of discrimination in schools–as well as existing frameworks in schools for addressing mental health–strongly support the notion that a crucial pillar for future systems of support must include education of mental illnesses and conditions.

In children and adolescents, stigma is most commonly present within their peer groups (Heary et al., 2017). Stigma and discrimination together are a lethal combination in school-aged groups. Labels such as “weird,” “dangerous,” or “violent,” stuck out as most frequently tied to students with mental health concerns (Heary et al., 2017). The most prevalent factor that emerged through the literature as it pertains to student mental health is scarcity of mental health knowledge (Reinke et al., 2011; Biegel et al., 2009; Mental Health America, 2017). Newly emerging findings suggest that educating parents and staff as well as students about mental health issues would decrease the occurrence of negative labeling  and discriminatory behavior in schools (Thornicroft et al., 2007; Davey, 2013). These findings coupled with the knowledge collected regarding stigma on a broad scale leads us to examine the frameworks currently in place to act as levels of support for students who struggle with mental conditions. Thus far, it is blatantly apparent that new education programs are needed as means to better inform not just the public at large–but also educators, administrators, parents, and general student bodies. Through this, it may be argued that educated conversation would provide a significant strategy for reducing stigma in student populations. Moreover, Social-Emotional Learning strategies and programs have been proven effective in young student populations as means to teach students emotional regulation strategies and social intelligence techniques beyond conventional curriculum models (Durlak et al., 2011; Greenberg et al., 2003).

The number of adolescents being referred to mental health specialists is on the rise (Biggins, 2018). Before exploring the supports that are currently commonly offered within school systems, it is interesting to note that emerging theories in the field of positive psychology are changing the dialogue of both behavioral health in schools and also at large (Biggins, 2018)–but more on that coming up. A significant majority of school guidance counselors are consumed with administrative and college admission related work, thus taking away time that could be utilized to evaluate students in potential emotional distress. While this is not the case across the board, a growing response to this matter has focused on the expansion of universal mental health screenings and selective school-based interventions (Reinke et al., 2011). This research notes the strides made in recent years with respect to schools’ performance in recognizing the correct approaches to countering social and emotional concerns of students, yet tend to fall short in connecting the remaining gaps (Reinke et al., 2011). This is particularly noteworthy due to the apparent need for evidence-based intervention strategies for students within their own school communities. When exploring for logical solutions toward constructing new foundations for how we as a culture counter mental health matters in adolescents, moreover, how those matters are approached in a school setting, it is of vital importance to take a look at the very nature of human relationships, both socially–and with self. World renowned researcher and social worker, Brene Brown, Ph.D., tells us in her 2014 publication, Daring Greatly, that humans are “hardwired for connection” (Brown 13-14). This statement is backed by countless previous and newly emerging findings from the fields of psychology and social work (Reinke et al., 2011). Bottom line: human beings are neurobiologically structured for love and belonging–thus, connection is our muse. That said, what happens when that “flow” is interrupted, damaged, or even yet to be discovered? Here lies the tricky part. In my ventures of authoring academic research in my high school years, I have attempted to craft findings cushioned with a fancy and well-armed vernacular–but for this section of my research in this case–I feel that it is important to be upfront and to the point about these issues. This is the shift in what I have read through tens and hundreds of academic journals, books, TED talks, op-eds, etc. It is something that has single-handedly, through its deep and complex detail, captured nearly every ounce of my attention. There are things in life that we as human beings stumble upon by some unknown grace and develop deep passion for. They are things that manifest within our being and captivate our cognitive processes until we discover grounds for resolution. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and research professor at the University of Pennsylvania calls this “grit,” and through reading both Dr. Duckworth’s and her colleagues work on the matter, I began to see an emerging pattern. One that increasingly began coating my desk space and painting the inner workings of my brain as a path forward for how we confront social, emotional, and behavioral issues in schools: positive psychology. I would also make the argument that it is an area of study that can bring us all to understand better the complex connections in our everyday lives–to bring all of us closer together–and toward a more wholehearted life. It is something that also led me to invest in an online course in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in the final days of my high school career. Nonetheless, this is where I am. This is what it is. Please join me on my path toward developing this new foundation. The synthesis of these unique and insightful schools of thought have power far beyond my capacity to understand–and when we may unite our minds–their substance may propel our perceptions and methods of human relationships past whatever box we may have drawn in years past.

Due to the limited scope of time to examine all of the existing information on these topics, it is unrealistic to say I am capable of laying out a comprehensive framework to approach mental health and wellbeing in schools for future use. What I will do, however, is present a set of ideas. Fuel for future inquiry. Roots for discussion. This all with the intent that the brightest in the fields of both psychology and education may come together to draft the steps forward for these matters.


Why should well-being be taught in schools?  

With today’s prevalence of depression and anxiety amongst youth, it has been argued that more well-being is synergistic with better learning (Seligman et al., 2009). Well-being should also be taught with the backing of several arguments. One being as an antidote to depression. Moreover, well-being in curriculum is shown through evidence-based findings to increase overall life satisfaction, aid better learning and thinking, and provide support to students to enhance well-being on a greater scale than just academics alone (Seligman et al., 2009). With this argument emerged a newly developed model called “P.E.R.M.A.” I have learned about this program in depth through my coursework via University of Pennsylvania and I would even go as far to make the case for its existence in every mandated curriculum guidepost. First coined by Dr. Martin Seligman in 2011, in 2019 it has been more developed, researched, and practiced. Its meaning: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments) uncover a vast realm of benefits when practiced with not just adolescents–but people at large (Seligman, 2019). Each pillar of this model depend on the synthesis of all practices that make its whole and are constantly evolving. Lastly remains the question of why positive interventions actually work. By doing things such as making the attempts to build pleasure, engagement, and meaning–as well as growing positive emotion–we learn that these strengths may counter emotional or behavioral disorders (Duckworth, Steen, and Seligman 2005).  

Where do we go from here? There is a wealth of information available on individual topics–yet few works go on to synthesize all ideas into a working model. While just a few were presented in this research, I would conclude that these matters are certainly noble causes with increasing demand for answers and new solutions. I vow to continue this work regarding well-being through both my academic and professional endeavors. These ideas are undeniable facts presented across the board in defense of pursuing new knowledge and developing new frameworks for children and adolescent intervention and curriculum models. It is of particular noteworthiness that there is still much untapped knowledge–and like these models–we must possess the courage to shine light on their parts to uncover the bright new beacon of hope in the American education system.

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