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Health Education: It’s more than Sex Ed

Published on July 17th, 2019

Students at Animo South ask questions during a Peer Health Exchange workshop. (Rachel Carrillo/Peer Health Exchange)

When many people think of health education, they often picture awkward lessons about puberty and safe sex led by the gym teacher.  At its best, sexuality education is much more than this—it builds skills and includes content ranging from reproductive health to relationships to human trafficking. And while these topics are critical to the wellbeing of young people, they’re far from a sufficient overview of health. Too often, when it comes to health education the conversation stops at sexuality. 

Many states don’t mandate health education. In those that do, the mandates are often limited to sex ed, despite the fact that national health education standards include a wide breadth of skills and content areas.

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, so we thought it would be a perfect time to highlight this critical component of health education.

Peer Health Exchange recently partnered with Youth Tech Health (YTH) to examine young people’s relationship with technology, resources, and programming related to all of the content areas we cover: sexual health, mental health, and substance abuse.  

We chose to work with YTH because of their deep commitment and experience with centering young people’s voices. For our part, we were eager to hear from young people about what they thought.

As our team’s lead, I had the privilege of attending two of the three community consultations that YTH conducted: one with 9th and 10th graders at an Oakland high school (not a Peer Health Exchange partner); and another at a youth center in Tunica, Mississippi.

The participating students’ reflections and ideas were incredibly rich. Of our many key takeaways, we found young people from all sites resoundingly want information about mental health, depression, suicide, and substance use.

When asked about experiences talking about mental health in school, one young woman in Oakland, Nikki*, was vivid in her response:

“See this hole in my jeans? If I cover it up with my hand, like this, you’d never know anything’s wrong with the jeans. That’s how it is with mental health…it’s like teachers think that if you can’t see it, and you don’t ask about it, it’s not there.”

Nikki went on to describe how, while her school had a few weeks of sexual health education many other important health issues that are critical for young people, such as mental health, were never addressed. She wanted to discuss these topics with classmates and teachers but hadn’t been given the opportunity. Her experience is unfortunately similar to that of many young people across the country. Mental health is so often ignored in school, or worse, stigmatized.

As the person who oversees Peer Health Exchange’s team that designs, develops, and evaluates our curriculum, I am incredibly proud of the many opportunities for learning and engagement that my team has carefully crafted in each of our 14 workshops. And while I suppose I shouldn’t play favorites, I have a special place in my heart for our workshops dealing with mental health. 

We recently moved this content to the first half of the curriculum since we see mental health as such a critical component to other health decisions young people face. In these workshops, not only do young people learn about warning signs they should look out for, they also explore the impact stigma has on mental health, brainstorm coping skills, consider the ways in which they can support a friend who is struggling, and practice asking for help from a trusted adult. In the vast majority of our schools, and the vast majority of schools in this country, they would not be spending any time talking about mental health. 

All 18,000 young people that participated in Peer Health Exchange last year engaged with this critical content. There are some other mental health programs out there, but not nearly as many as there are for other health areas, like sexual health.

This is beginning to change, as last year, New York and Virginia became the first two states to enact laws requiring mental health education in schools. We hope that others won’t be far behind.

Lisa Walker is Assistant Vice President of Programs and Strategic Learning at Peer Health Exchange. She is responsible for driving Peer Health Exchange’s national vision and strategy for program impact and is obsessed with learning and continuous improvement.

Lisa Walker

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