Health is one of the basic priorities of individuals and governments, as healthy nations are happy ones, while health education remains an educational topic of certain debate. Recent research shows that healthy students learn better while more educated people have better health (Kolbe 453). Although health education is a part of the curriculum in many countries, including the USA, Americans are still debating the benefits and shortcomings of educating students about their health (Sukys et al. 2). Stakeholders, including but not confined to students, parents, educators, administrators, and policymakers, are specifically concerned about making health education a mandatory practice. Although mandatory health education will require additional investment and considerable effort, it should be implemented in American schools to help young people and the entire society become healthier and even more successful.
First, it is necessary to note that health literacy remains rather low in many developed countries, including the United States. It has been estimated that approximately 47% of Americans have insufficient health literacy skills (Vamos et al. 2). The rate of people varies across different ages and socioeconomic groups, but it is still quite low. In simple terms, more than half of Americans have limited knowledge about their health and healthy behaviors, which may account for the high incidence of various disorders and health conditions. The lack of health literacy skills is directly linked to the existing educational paradigms in the USA (Vamos et al. 4). Vamos et al. report that at the beginning of the twentieth century, health was an important part of education as it was believed that students with some health issues could not perform well academically (3). This view is not apparent in the educational system of the USA, and health literacy effort is mainly confined to nutrition-related programs and incentives. The focus on nutrition and the lack of attention to other aspects of health contributes to the low rate of health literacy skills.
As far as American health education programs are concerned, they can be characterized by localization in many respects. For instance, health education programs are often localized geographically or concentrate on particular areas (Sukys et al. 1). Schools and school districts try to implement diverse health education initiatives, but no comprehensive (and mandatory) practice on the federal or state levels has been introduced. Vamos et al. state that different stakeholders see these programs like the ones aimed at receiving good test results (4). Many believe that students do not acquire the necessary health literacy skills but get prepared for tests on some aspects of healthy dietary habits. Some view physical education as the necessary (and sufficient) educational practice to promote healthy behaviors. Grao‐Cruces et al. report that physical education classes do not correlate significantly with students’ physical activity during the day (612). The majority of students are not very active physically, although diverse recommendations are provided during physical education classes. It is also quite apparent that these efforts do not lead to desirable outcomes and any meaningful changes.
Multiple Positive Effects of Health Education
At the same time, a sufficient bulk of empirical data regarding the benefits of health education in schools exists. For example, school programs focusing on a combination of such aspects as physical activity, family engagement, nutrition, and community involvement contribute to the prevention of childhood obesity (Kolbe 453). Students who have acquired health literacy skills are likely to shape their lifestyles, becoming more active and mindful of their diets. Clearly, such positive effects are associated with improved health outcomes because the decrease in the rate of obese people is associated with a lower incidence of such diseases as diabetes and diverse cardiovascular disorders. Another research shows that people with a higher level of health literacy tend to be more cooperative patients and follow all prescriptions (Vamos et al. 5). Clearly, patient outcomes are more favorable in these cases, so health education implemented as a comprehensive mandatory practice can have a considerable effect on health-related behaviors in adulthood.
Although it may seem self-evident, it is critical to state that health behaviors developed at earlier stages of life persist into adulthood. Kolbe states that the primary causes of death are associated with violence and unintentional injuries, risky sexual behaviors (leading to teenage pregnancy or HIV/AIDS infection), substance use, and unhealthy dietary patterns (447). Health education is instrumental in establishing appropriate health behaviors in young people, which will help them maintain a healthy lifestyle in the future. In simple terms, health education can be the basis for the development of a healthy nation where people are characterized by healthy behaviors that persist in their adulthood.
In addition to obvious health-related benefits for individuals and communities, the implementation of effective health education initiatives results in positive financial outcomes for schools and the healthcare system. It has been estimated that the number of school-based healthcare centers more than doubled in fifteen years (from 1999 to 2015) (Kolbe 449). Reportedly, Medicaid provided approximately $4 billion to fund school-based health services (Kolbe 449). However, this spending can be reduced if the collaboration of healthcare practitioners providing services at schools and educators is effective and comprehensive. These professionals need to develop proper projects to help students acquire the necessary health literacy skills. This practice will lead to early diagnoses, proper treatment, and most importantly, the establishment of healthy patterns and lifestyles.
Mental health education has also been introduced as a separate practice and as a component of the general health education effort. It is necessary to note that almost half of the teenage students experience some sort of mental disorder at different points in their life, and approximately 20% develop a serious mental disorder (Kolbe 449). The rate of those who address healthcare providers asking for help is still low (20%) (Kolbe 449). Almost all of the students (up to 80%) receive mental health or social work services in the school setting, which is associated with quite a considerable financial burden for schools. At the same time, health education has proved to be effective in helping students develop resilience and the ability to address mental health issues (Salmoirago-Blotcher et al. 92). Therefore, the provision of health education as a mandatory practice can have a positive effect on young people’s mental health and substantial savings for school budgets.
An illustration of the effectiveness of such incentives is the study on integrating mindfulness in health education projects. It is found that the integration of mindfulness in school health education programs led to positive changes in students’ healthy behaviors (Salmoirago-Blotcher et al. 94). The introduction of comprehensive health education initiatives has a favorable impact on students’ academic performance due to their wellness, and mental and physical health (Kolbe 453). Therefore, it is clear that the introduction of health education in schools has favorable effects on individual and public health.
It is also noteworthy that the positive effects of health education can be witnessed in quite a limited period of time. The focus of health education is transformations in young generations who will keep to healthy patterns (Salmoirago-Blotcher et al. 94). However, the influence of students can be associated with wider outcomes as students will affect their families as well (Martinson and Elia 132). Clearly, adults and especially older adults have established behaviors and will resist change, but transformations are inevitable, at least, to a certain extent. Therefore, the implementation of health education as a mandatory practice will affect different age groups, which will lead to multiple positive changes in contemporary society.
Opponents’ Arguments and Potential Solutions
At the same time, some arguments of the opponents of making school health education a mandatory practice deserve close attention. Clearly, the introduction of mandatory health education incentives is associated with the need to allocate additional funds, which can be a substantial issue for many school districts (Vamos et al. 13). The opponents of health education argue that physical education can ensure the proper development of young generations. However, it was found that physical education negatively correlated with health literacy while health education classes had a positive relationship with health literacy (Lai et al. 354). Obviously, physical education can only be a part of a more comprehensive educational practice aimed at improving students’ health literacy.
The most vulnerable people will be the residents of low-income communities where funding is scarce. The uneven distribution of investment can contribute to growing inequity, which will worsen the existing public health issues. Nevertheless, Lai et al. emphasize that the allocation of funds into effective formal health education is favorable for students’ academic achievement, as well as their health (351). In order to ensure the proper distribution of resources, it is important to evaluate the existing programs and provide more funding for formal and comprehensive health education projects. As mentioned above, health education can help schools decrease their spending if educators and healthcare practitioners collaborate effectively (Kolbe 449). Hence, the investment necessary for the establishment of health education will be soon compensated by reduced healthcare spending.
Another aspect critics of the practice concentrate on is associated with its narrow focus and inability of educators to achieve the established goals. A recent study displayed the attitudes of teachers and administrators towards health education and some projects associated with it (Lai et al. 356). Educators tend to be concerned about the fact that they do not have sufficient skills to provide high-quality educational services related to health education, which makes the entire practice a waste of their time and budget money (Lai et al. 356). It is also believed that health education is characterized by a narrow focus, which makes a major positive influence unlikely. These perspectives often have an impact on the quality of the implemented projects.
However, diverse solutions to the problem have been introduced and discussed. For instance, the development of the ecological model of health education is one of the proposed strategies (Martinson and Elia 132). The process of health education incorporation into the current curriculum should involve the focus on such levels of health impact as an individual, interpersonal, community, institutional, and public policy. People should shape their behaviors, interact with and influence others, collaborate with larger communities, and advocate for change at local, state, and federal levels.
The development of an online platform for sharing ideas and discussing the major components of health education can become the first step. Researchers, practitioners, policymakers, administrators, students, and parents, as well as healthcare professionals, should participate in this discussion. Numerous success stories of effective implementation of health education projects can be benchmarks for diverse projects and the creation of a single federal policy. The accumulated knowledge on the matter can be the necessary background for the development of the current agenda of the discussion.
In conclusion, it is important to state that health education should become a mandatory practice due to its potential effects on the educational and healthcare systems, as well as the overall development of American society. Some elements of health education have been present in American schools for decades but this inclusion is still rather sporadic. Although this practice was seen as essential in the first part of the twentieth century, it lost this status and became a topic of heated debate. Opponents of health education integration into the curriculum concentrate on the need for additional funding and the lack of a clear practice. However, a wealth of empirical data suggests that health education incentives are associated with favorable outcomes. Young people develop healthy behavioral patterns, which helps them perform better academically and become more successful in their adult life. Hence, health education should be a mandatory practice, which will be the ground for further development of the country.
Grao‐Cruces, Alberto, et al. “The Role of School in Helping Children and Adolescents Reach the Physical Activity Recommendations: The UP&DOWN Study”. Journal of School Health, vol. 89, no. 8, 2019, pp. 612-618.
Kolbe, Lloyd J. “School Health as a Strategy to Improve Both Public Health and Education”. Annual Review of Public Health, vol. 40, no. 1, 2019, pp. 443-463.
Lai, Hsiang-Ru, et al. “Health Literacy Teaching Beliefs, Attitudes, Efficacy, and Intentions of Middle School Health and Physical Education Teachers”. Journal of School Health, vol. 88, no. 5, 2018, pp. 350-358.
Martinson, Marty, and John P. Elia. “Ecological and Political Economy Lenses for School Health Education: A Critical Pedagogy Shift”. Health Education, vol. 118, no. 2, 2018, pp. 131-143.
Salmoirago-Blotcher, Elena, et al. “Integrating Mindfulness Training in School Health Education to Promote Healthy Behaviors in Adolescents: Feasibility and Preliminary Effects on Exercise and Dietary Habits”. Preventive Medicine Reports, vol. 9, 2018, pp. 92-95.
Sukys, Saulius, et al. “Subjective Health Literacy Among School-Aged Children: First Evidence from Lithuania”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 16, no. 18, 2019, pp. 1-11.
Vamos, Sandra, et al. “Making a Case for “Education for Health Literacy”: An International Perspective”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, no. 4, 2020, pp. 1-25.