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Breaking the Stigma of Children and Mental Illness During Mental Health Awareness Month

NHA Communications Team  |  May 20, 2021
It’s okay to not be okay. Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness, even children. Rukshana Ilahi, director of special education at National Heritage Academies, shares that you can be young and still struggle.

Adult teaching a smiling a child.
Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, with an average 8-10-year gap between initial symptoms and intervention. In the life of a child, those are critical developmental years.

“We must not dismiss a child’s feelings and thoughts,” said Ilahi. “While they may not have words to express how they’re feeling, pay attention to what they’re doing. Behavior is often language that tells you a ton, and we, as educators, can give them language and coping strategies and appropriate supports to work through that.”

One in six youth aged six to seventeen experience a mental health condition each year.

Educators play a vital part in helping students identify how they are feeling. “Being an active listener while not passing judgement can make all the difference when supporting children and their mental well-being,” said Ilahi. “Our role isn’t to have all the answers but to help provide a safe space to seek support.”

Social and emotional learning techniques are evident throughout Linden Charter Academy. In addition to having a social worker on staff to provide support to students and families, Linden also executes book and movie studies that adopt research-driven social and emotional supports through a multi-tiered behavioral system of support.

Child smiling.

Every year, the Linden leadership team places special emphasis on ensuring staff are equipped with skills to support students in the classroom that may have experienced trauma. For example, they attended Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) training, Restorative Practices, and Expanding Access to Urban Youth lead by Tyrone Howard. 

Supporting students emotionally and mentally is equally as important as supporting them academically. “We often lose sight or don’t spend enough time addressing social and emotional needs,” said Ilahi. “We can’t be scared to have those tough conversations with students. Additionally, when students experience a high level of uncertainty, anxiety, or frustration, it’s difficult for them to take in new information. Addressing their needs holistically is critical. Mental health is a pillar that contributes to a student’s overall well-being, and a stable mental foundation helps them receive and retain information.”

Teacher smiling while teaching.

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) joins the national movement to raise awareness about mental health and presents an opportunity to break the stigma surrounding children and mental health. This time is spent focusing on the healing value of connecting in safe ways, prioritizing mental health, and acknowledging that it’s okay to not be okay.
About National Heritage Academies:
NHA is a network of 98 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 60,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For m

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