Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to people about concrete ways to deal with stress or improve their mental health. It’s been really interesting and kind of exhilarating as I notice how much I’ve learned in the last year or so and how wonderful it is to be able to share with others. However as I do this, I’ve begun to notice that even those people who are supposedly “normal” often don’t have a whole lot of skills around managing their mental health. Many of them have struggled to regulate emotions, to understand interpersonal effectiveness, or to tolerate distress. While they likely don’t feel emotions as strongly or have as few skills as those with diagnoses or who have been medicated, there is almost no one in this world who is an expert in navigating their emotions and mental health. To use the featured pic as an example, while not everyone is hanging out in the burning basement, few people are on the roof and everyone could enjoy being a few steps higher on the ladder.
The odd thing about understanding emotions is that it’s something we’re never taught. We are taught how to interact with other people, we are taught how to learn, we are taught how to budget or do our laundry or care for an animal. We’re particularly taught how to take care of our physical health. But for some reason everyone is expected to just pick up how to manage emotions and mental health. Now many of us have things modeled for us by our parents, but they were often just as clueless as we were and have cobbled something together out of their life experiences to get the best version they can. And rarely do they spend a lot of time consciously helping us sort out our emotions. All of that seems a little bit ridiculous to me. If there are two things that are really really useful to be successful anywhere else in life it’s stable mental health and stable physical health. If you don’t have those two things, everything becomes infinitely more difficult. So why don’t we give our children the tools to succeed?
Especially as I’ve been participating in DBT, I’ve been noticing that it really would not be all that hard to include education like that in schools. I only go once a week for two and a half hours. And I’m supposed to figure these skills out in a year. If we began implementing some of the knowledge that we have from psychology in schools from the time children start and teach them skills that will actually help them regulate emotions and deal with interpersonal relationships, we wouldn’t have to devote much time each week to it. Think of how helpful it would be to kids to understand what being judgmental is and how to cut down on judgments without feeling ashamed or bad about it. Or how helpful it would be to give them clear strategies for calming themselves. Or to help them recognize and name their emotions. Or to learn that emotions are acceptable and that they can feel emotions and simply sit with them. Holy cow I would have done so much better in life if I had had some of this basic training.
I don’t know if there’s any way to make this happen, but if we could adjust education in any way, I would suggest that we should add in a basic curriculum of emotional regulation. Most schools have a school therapist: it could be something they do once a week or once a month, or it could be something that teachers start getting trained on in school. It would include skills like how to make requests, set boundaries, validate, or be generous to and with others as part of interpersonal effectiveness. It would include techniques like breathing, distraction, or self-soothing for tolerating bad situations. And it would include some measure of work on identifying emotions, accepting emotions, fighting judgments, and using mindfulness to accept situations. Does anyone have a suggestion of how to make this into a petition or move it into the broader dialogue? I never hear a question of emotional education being brought up when we talk about improving mental health, but this could be a huge step towards decreasing stigma and increasing access.