Health education has come a long way since 1975, when 20 state legislatures voted to restrict or abolish sex education. Today, most parents are in favor of their teenagers learning about sex and pregnancy prevention, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, healthy eating, and physical activity, according to a national health poll unveiled last week.
In addition to those oldie-but-goodie topics, the poll revealed growing support for several less traditional others: Two-thirds of parents said schools “definitely” should cover emotional and mental health issues, such as bullying, depression, and stress. The majority also would like their children to learn basic first aid, CPR, and how to use the healthcare system.
“For so long, the stigma of mental health has prevented people from seeking treatment and talking about a problem, but I think this generation of parents really has a different attitude, and they see schools as a partner to help,” says University of Michigan researcher Sarah Clark, co-director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.
Health education is required for most middle and high school students, with states determining the curriculum. In May, the Mott Poll, which conducts three surveys per year on various children’s health topics, queried parents in all 50 states about health education preferences. Families with at least one child in a public, private, or charter middle or high school were included.
While 67 percent of parents favored the inclusion of emotional and mental health, only 32 percent said such topics are currently taught at their children’s schools. The increasing interest in mental health is consistent with an earlier Mott Poll that ranked bullying, stress, suicide, and depression in the top 10 of all child health concerns.
Interestingly, 4 in 10 parents believe schools should educate their children on how to use the health care system. That topic was an even higher priority for parents who make less than $60,000 per year, possibly because these parents face challenges themselves in accessing health care, says Clark.
The study did not include children’s opinions of what they’re learning about health in school, nor did it quantify what is actually taught in US schools.
There may be straightforward, inexpensive ways to include those newer topics outside of health education classes, says Clark. Nurses could be invited to visit a school to teach about first aid and CPR, for example, or small counseling and discussion groups can be put in place to broach topics of mental and emotional health.
“There are a number of different ways a school can make progress toward this, even before they’re able to implement a full health education curriculum,” says Clark. “There are plenty of people trying to make an effort.”