Letter to the Editor: Positive psychology

Matt Coleman, Tulane Student

This is not the first mental health article you’ve read.

You don’t need to hear me reiterate the importance of social support, the benefits of seeking professional help, or the impact of kindness. These are all fantastic and vital to the well-being of a community, particularly one struggling to cope with tragedy like Tulane.

Yet suicide rates have climbed and overall well-being has plummeted, especially among college-aged students. Despite the drastic improvements on mental health awareness around the United States, we shouldn’t be close to being satisfied with our progress.

In my quaint suburban hometown of Northbrook, Illinois alone, four teenagers have taken their lives in the past few years, including one of my brother’s friends last month. In surrounding neighborhoods, so have many others. As awful as it sounds, I have become desensitized to suicide.

So when I heard about the most recent death on campus, I was almost completely unphased. But my next feeling was pure frustration. I was frustrated at being unphased. I was unphased because I had seen this too many times.

When hearing about a suicide doesn’t even make you flinch, you know it’s time for a large-scale, revolutionary change. But what? The emergency hotlines, community outreach and countless new organizations are nothing short of spectacular. However, we need to backtrack. A lot.

There exists no flawless solution, but I believe the best option is one that has been largely unexplored — the integration of personal development courses into the core curriculum of high schools and colleges.

Historically, when we want to teach to the masses, we go through the education system. It’s certainly not a short-term answer but it works. Revitalizing the education system to show unrelenting care for the well-being of its students will pay dividends for the students for years to come, as early education undoubtedly has a strong effect on shaping personality, attitudes and beliefs.

If education is supposed to shape and prepare you, why do we not teach our youth the importance of mental health? Why is personal development still an afterthought while courses like geometry and chemistry remain a rite of passage in our education system?

I couldn’t tell you. But what I can say is encouraging.

A few schools, both at the high school level and at universities, have implemented courses centered around well-being, with a structured curriculum similar to any other course at that level. Contrary to popular belief, these aren’t meant to be wishy-washy, blow-off classes. Some may also argue that topics related to personal development are too abstract of concepts to teach formally. Apparently Harvard doesn’t think so.

Of all of the courses offered in Harvard’s history, the most popular is “Positive Psychology 1504.” The course description follows:

“The course focuses on the psychological aspects of a fulfilling and flourishing life. Topics include happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor.”

Tulane does have a Positive Psychology course of its own, yet it has 16 seats available and is not offered every semester. Tulane also has a TIDES course called “Happiness and Human Flourishing,” which I personally enjoyed and learned a lot from, but that again is limited to a small number of students in their first semester of freshman year.

Still, this is far from just applicable to Tulane. Imagine how valuable it would be to have taken a course or two in high school about personal development. Courses where in your lectures and readings you learned how to manage stress, reflect on your goals and purpose in life, find new joys in day-to-day life, improve your relationships and overcome adversity. I couldn’t think of a class that would be more practical or universally applicable.

In today’s world, we often use the bad to reinforce the good. We try to find meaning and optimism following tragedy. But instead, let’s not limit ourselves to making tragedy a prerequisite for personal growth. Nothing should compromise mental health, so let’s reflect that in education.

As current students, showing a desire for more of these courses is one way to call attention to the problem. Sign up for them. Raise the demand so that the supply follows.

Administrators, there is a critical need to reevaluate our priorities when it comes to giving students a well-rounded education. I concede that changing the curriculum requirements in thousands of schools is a ridiculously difficult task, and courses related to well-being probably need to show success in a large number of communities before schools will feel confident in requiring them. But for now, high schools and universities can fairly easily promote and expand these courses, making them more accessible to students.

Let’s continue to fight the good fight. I’m amazed at the positive responses from my communities at home and at Tulane in the face of extreme adversity. The conversation is heating up, and our culture is reflecting a shift towards recognizing the importance of mental health and acting upon it. Now, we need to truly give our society the foundation towards a life of fulfillment. So let’s teach it.