A simple recipe for improving the mental health of humanity
Mental illness is at an all-time high. For example, according to the CDC, the national rate of Major Depressive Episodes (MDE) in youth has doubled since 2011. In 2023, 17% of 12 to 17-year-olds had experienced at least one Major Depressive Episode during the previous 12 months.
In fact, all CDC measures of mental illness in children and adolescents have been rising pretty steadily since the turn of the century, and there have been similar increases in mental illness around the world. This isn’t just a national crisis; it’s a global crisis.
In response to this global mental health crisis, public education systems around the world are adding curricula designed to improve students’ mental health, primarily by teaching them about mental health. I strongly suspect that most of these programs will have little or no sustained impact on mental health because learning about it (Enhancing Mental Health Literacy) does not equip students with the fundamental dispositions, traits, and skills required to sustain mental health in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.
In order to improve students’ mental health, we need to educate students in a way that optimizes mental development. To do this, we must support them in learning the way the brain is designed to learn (through real-world practice in the Goldilocks zone). When people learn this way…
- They find learning more meaningful. Meaningful learning supports mental wellbeing.
- They frequently experience the satisfaction and sense of flow that result from healthy engagement of the dopamine-opioid cycle. Both satisfaction and flow are associated with mental wellbeing.
- By learning through practice at their own pace, students develop an earned sense of competence, regardless of their native mental capacity. People with an earned sense of competence tend to be more effective, adaptable, resilient, and hopeful — even in hard times. People who are effective, adaptable, resilient, and hopeful are likely to enjoy mental wellbeing.
To further enhance their mental health, students require frequent opportunities to practice a variety of self-regulation and interpersonal skills, such as those required for collaboration and conflict resolution (VUCA skills.) These skills increase students’ ability to develop and sustain healthy relationships, another important contributor to mental wellbeing.
Numerous factors contribute to mental health, many of which cannot be addressed by education alone. That said, educational systems can and should provide students with the opportunity to learn in ways that contribute to the development of adaptive and resilient minds equipped with a full range of VUCA skills.