As a graduate of Blue Valley North’s class of 2020, I know firsthand how proactive conversations about mental health can help students. In high school, I was able to help a friend, who was struggling with suicidal thoughts, realize that she is loved.


Having that conversation and showing her support helped her realize she did not have to face her struggles alone and that there is a support system to help. However, for other youths, it may be more challenging to recognize and seek the services that are readily available to them.


It is imperative that student populations are able to seek available resources and not encounter added anxiety due to fear of negative peer response. Many students worry that seeking mental health services or discussing their personal struggles will lead to a tarnished reputation or loss of friends.


We must work together to build a societal understanding that it is OK not to be OK.


So how do we do that?


We push for a world in which mental health is treated and viewed in the same light as physical health. To help others grasp this concept, I explain that for physical health injuries, seeking treatment is encouraged and largely supported, yet seeking behavioral health treatment is often avoided.


We must redefine societal and cultural perspectives on mental health. This process begins in schools, where children need to be actively engaged in learning and teachers in teaching.


For elementary students, tier-one social-emotional curriculum should be taught on a daily basis where the teacher reinforces emotional learning with academic lessons. A teacher could give a lesson on sharing, for example, then have students share classroom supplies later.


By providing mental health education at an early age, students will be more equipped to understand their own emotions, have an open mindset about discussing their emotional well-being and will be more likely to seek behavioral health services should they need them.


Rep. Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville, agreed, saying: "Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and any number of issues related to mental well-being must be addressed before we can expect students to perform well and excel in the classroom. It is both the fiscally smart and moral choice to get our kids on a sound path as early as possible. Yes, it will require an investment, but the dividends will be tremendous."


The need for an increase in mental health education becomes even more apparent for the middle school age group. According to the World Health Organization, more than 50% of lifetime mental health conditions develop before the age of 14. This age group encounters added stress due to changing bodies, friend groups and perspectives on who they are and who they want to be.


In my experience, this early mental health intervention and education can have a tremendous impact as it will greatly aid them in dealing with challenges in high school and beyond.


Peers are the biggest influence on these students and encouraging peer-to-peer mental health conversations is the greatest way to counter stigma and ensure students are open to services.


Increasing behavioral health education and access to treatment unlocks the greatest opportunity to raise a generation in touch with their mental health. We must increase our state and community investments in behavioral health.


Caleb Nelson is a graduate of Blue Valley North’s class of 2020. He is interning at the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.