Are we failing today’s youth?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, in particular depression and suicidal ideation.
“We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, their communities, and all of our futures,” said AACAP President Gabrielle A. Carlson, M.D. “We cannot sit idly by. This is a national emergency, and the time for swift and deliberate action is now.”
Why severe student mental health cases are increasing
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade,” said US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
Then came the pandemic which added to the existing challenges faced by America’s youth. It disrupted things like in-person schooling and social opportunities with peers and educators. For some children and adolescents, the disruption impacted their access to health care and social services, food, housing, and the health of their family or caregivers.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the pandemic most heavily affected already-vulnerable groups. These include individuals with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, low-income, and homeless youth, as well as those in rural areas, immigrant households, and child welfare or juvenile justice systems.
In decades past, the concept of student wellness often focused on the physical, including physical activity, hygiene, etc. However, these days, more and more schools are understanding the value of, as well as the need for, promoting wellness that focuses on the emotional wellbeing of their students.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that one in seven 10-19 years olds experience at least one mental health condition, identifies the most common (or dominant) categories youth experience as:
- Emotional disorders, including depression and anxiety
- Behavioral disorders, including anorexia and bulimia
- Psychosis, including hallucinations or delusions
- Suicide and self-harm
- Risky behavior, including substance abuse and unprotected sex
How to support mental health programs in schools
Supporting the mental health of today’s youth requires a greater effort to address long standing challenges faced by young people, their families, and communities. The Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health published several recommendations, including:
- Recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health
- Expand social and emotional learning (SEL) programs
- Train staff to recognize and address mental health issues
- Ensure that all students have access to mental health care
- Prioritize students with disabilities or those suffering from poverty or trauma
- Increase timely data collection and research to identify and respond to youth mental health needs more rapidly
The last recommendation includes more research into the relationship between technology and youth mental health. While technology can be a part of the problem, it can also be a part of the solution. For example, student safety and wellness software allows schools to discover signs of trouble early on. This type of early detection can help schools facilitate interventions and provide resources to a student long before a mental health situation becomes life-threatening.
Empowering schools to be proactive about student mental health
Creating positive, safe, and affirming school environments is a great first step toward demonstrating that student mental health matters.
- Develop and enforce anti-bullying policies: Train students and staff on how to prevent harm through bystander interventions. Technology tools that provide AI monitoring with sentiment analysis can also help schools effectively detect signs of bullying.
- Remove stigma around mental health: Open discussions normalize mental health and reinforce that someone struggling with mental health isn’t broken or “crazy.” Declining mental health can be the result of many factors, including biology and life experiences. Create an environment where students and teachers can talk openly about their challenges.
- Make it okay to ask for help: Promote the idea that asking for help is normal and, in fact, very healthy. Teachers and other adults can model this behavior by being open about their own struggles and sharing the ways they’ve sought help (e.g., making an appointment to speak with a therapist). Whether they choose to reach out to a trusted teacher or counselor, or seek the support of a mental health professional, students need to know that seeking help is the first step toward self-care and resolution.
Student wellness early detection and treatment for schools
In addition to making cultural shifts to destigmatize mental health struggles, there’s more that can be done to identify and intervene with students who are struggling. Most organizations and mental health professionals agree that early detection can make all of the difference. Instead of addressing an emotional disorder after a student has threatened to harm themselves or even followed through on those threats, early detection may prevent that student from ever spiraling downward to a point where they feel helpless or hopeless.
Federal relief funding, including ESSER and ESSER II, earmarked for schools in the wake of Covid-19 will be used by many states to address the mental health needs in schools. For example, according to an analysis from FutureEd, Oklahoma will spend $35 million for 300 counselors and mental health professionals, while Nevada will spend $7.5 million to hire 100 mental health professionals.
While this is a great start, it simply does not go far enough. The average student-to-counselor ratio is 415-to-1, which leaves counselors overstretched and unable to give personalized attention to every student. This also makes it challenging to keep a pulse on their students’ wellness levels so they can know which students need help the most.
Make student mental health and wellness a priority
In order to address the epidemic of depression and self-harm among today’s kids, schools and communities can create environments that normalize and promote mental health care. They can also take steps to address student wellness proactively, before it becomes a bigger problem.
Student wellness, like any challenge, requires commitment and focus to make the improvements needed. Securly, a pioneer in K-12 student safety and wellness solutions, is committed to giving schools the technology tools they need to:
- Keep students safe online, both at school and home
- Proactively identify students who may be at risk
- Gain student mental health insights so they can intervene if needed
To learn more ways schools can tackle the student mental health crisis, read the blog.
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