By: Shellsea Lomeli
The importance of physical health has been drilled into us since we were children. From being forced to run laps in elementary school P.E. classes to sitting through a lecture about STDs in the eighth grade, schools have prioritized the promotion of a physically “healthy” lifestyle for students. Based on my personal experiences in public school, the same agenda was not given to another vital component of students’ health : mental wellbeing.
The point of this article is not to depict physical education and health as being unimportant. Clearly, keeping your body strong and well should be a priority. Having physical education classes throughout grade school is, in theory, a good thing. However, P.E. classes should not be the extent to which health is discussed with students. Nor should they be operated in a way that puts young people at risk of developing body image issues that can become detrimental to one’s mental health.
While the concept of mental health encompasses a lot of different things, I want to specifically discuss the way in which physical health is prioritized in school can be detrimental to mental and emotional wellness. My experience with P.E. in middle school was surrounded with numbers and measurements of my body and it’s ability. How long did it take you to run the mile? How much do you weigh? What is your BMI? These were all measurements of ourselves that we were forced to expose in a very public setting where anyone in class could see and use to compare bodies and abilities with one another.
For many, the days students had to weigh themselves and record it was just another Tuesday. But for people like myself who have struggled with body image issues for years, stepping on a scale while an entire line of classmates watched and waited, was absolute hell. If schools still want to collect students’ Body Mass Index (BMI) scores for surveillance and screening purposes, although there is great controversy on whether this measurement accurately measures physical health, this collection must be done in a better way. There should be a way that promotes privacy and decreases the likelihood of young people becoming at risk of developing weight related mental illnesses such as eating disorders.
Making changes to how physical education is conducted in schools is just the beginning of promoting mental health among students. If mental health is just as important as physical health, which I argue it is, then shouldn’t there also be some sort of educational platform that is geared towards mental health education in particular? In the same way that we are taught how to take care of our bodies through eating well and exercising, students should be taught how to take care of their minds.
In my twenty-one years of life, I have learned so much about how to lose weight and strengthen my muscles but I still struggle on figuring what to do to maintain or improve my mental health. Searching up a ten minute abs video on youtube is something I do without a second thought yet watching a meditation video seems almost taboo to me. While I cannot blame the entirety of this issue on my grade school education, I strongly believe that my hesitation to discover ways to better my mental and emotional wellbeing stem from not being introduced to these essential activities in my youth.
Obviously, it has been years since I have taken a grade school P.E. class so I cannot attest to how schools approach mental health education now. I hope educators are beginning to realize the importance of familiarizing students with taking care of all parts of themselves, not just their physical being. I hope improving mental wellbeing becomes something that is easy and less stigmatized for this new generation. Finally, when we were not exposed to it at a younger age, I hope that my own peers are beginning to realize the importance of taking care of your mind just as I am.