California’s Mental Health Education Programs Show Signs of Success

Contributing Writer Maggie Frank, ’20

California’s Statewide Mental Health Prevention and Early Intervention Programs (CalMHSA) works to educate high school students, teachers and staff at schools on mental health conditions. Positive results of these prevention and early intervention (PEI) programs include the reduction in the stigma and discrimination that surround mental health conditions, suicide prevention, and improvement of student mental health.

Mental illness stigma refers to the negative stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination towards those who experience mental health challenges. Based on population surveys, a very negative connotation comes with the phrase “mental illness.” PEI’s main goal is to reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness because this stigma has been shown to further intensify the negative emotional states of those who experience mental health conditions. The negative stigma and discrimination towards those who do experience mental health conditions has also been shown to both discourage these people from seeking and receiving the treatment that they need as well as decrease social support and increase the risk of social isolation. These negative actions result in challenging interactions with, or discrimination from, those such as landlords, employees, health care providers, and law enforcement. PEI’s approach to stigma reduction includes broad, multi-component mass media campaigns that focus on changing the public’s attitudes towards mental health conditions. PEI’s approach also includes more-focused training to educate and change the behaviors in specific target groups, such as students, police officers, and health providers.

One of the social marketing campaigns launched in 2012 as a part of California’s Statewide Mental Health Prevention and Early Intervention Programs was Each Mind Matters. Developed based on the research literature on best practices in stigma reduction, this campaign seeks to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Each Mind Matters includes four sub-parts, each of which have a different targeted age group, as well as subgoals and strategies specifically designed to fit that age group.

Another program included in the social marketing campaign was the Walk in Our Shoes program, which is also related to stigma reduction surrounding mental health conditions. The Walk in Our Shoes program includes theatrical presentations for students, an informational website with educational materials, as well as teacher curriculum for follow-up. Middle-school students who attended the Walk in Our Shoes presentation expressed less stigmatized attitudes in a variety of areas afterward.

Another major component of California’s Statewide Mental Health Prevention and Early Intervention Programs was its suicide prevention initiative. In accordance to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is among the leading causes for death in youths. According to the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), approximately 800,000 people die by suicide each year, which is about one death every 40 seconds. PEI’s approaches to suicide prevention include reducing access to lethal means, responding to crises effectively, and providing high-quality mental health care to those who have mental health needs. PEI also works to increase awareness, knowledge and skills among those who may have opportunities to intervene and facilitate access to appropriate mental health care.

In 2012, CalMHSA implemented a statewide mass media effort called Know the Signs, whose slogan is “Pain Isn’t Always Obvious.” According to RAND Corporation, “The Know the Signs suicide prevention campaign was strongly aligned with the best practices and is one of the best media campaigns on the subject.” It’s also very important to note that those who were exposed to the Know the Signs campaign’s materials reported being more confident in intervening with those who may be at risk of suicide. 

Another part of the California Suicide Prevention Initiative is Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). ASIST is an evidence-based training that provides people with the knowledge and skills that are needed to intervene with individuals who may be at risk of suicide. 

PEI’s student mental health approaches are designed to promote a school and campus climate that reflects heightened awareness and sensitivity to mental health conditions among students of all ages and backgrounds. One example of how this is done is by supporting students who are coping with emotional or behavior issues and stress by providing staff, faculty, peer leaders, or family members with the knowledge and skills to support, identify, and respond to specific mental health conditions or populations. 

In the CalMHSA Student Mental Health initiative section of the project, programs fell into three major categories: trainings, online resources, and networking/collaboration activities. The K-12 programs facilitating the networking/collaboration activities include the California Department of Education (CDE), the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA), as well as other college and university systems. 

A large number of training on mental health done by PEI was administered to staff in California’s K-12 schools as well as staff and students in California’s higher education systems (ie. colleges and universities). Some of the trainings were informed by research literature, which focused on increasing the knowledge of student risk and protective factors, school and community resources, intervention strategies, as well as ways to promote mentally healthy environments. In both K-12 and higher level education systems, RAND found many benefits from the trainings as well as that the trainings provided by PEI reached a large number of people. RAND also found that after the training, participants reported greater confidence to intervene with students who may be at risk as well as greater confidence to refer students to mental health professionals. 

PEI programming is ongoing and is helping both students and staff in schools, colleges, and universities to better understand mental health conditions and what individuals can do in order to help both themselves or someone in need. California’s Statewide Mental Health Prevention and Early Intervention Programs are instilling confidence in those with mental health conditions as well as those who could provide assistance to those who are dealing with a mental health condition. CalMHSA continues to destigmatize mental health and promote the education of the public on mental health as well as mental health conditions.

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