Student Mental Health Challenges Test the Mission of K-12 Schools

Here are actionable tips for students, parents, and educators as they navigate critical mental health issues students are facing.

Student Mental Health Challenges Test the Mission of K-12 Schools

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Schools do not exist simply to teach. Learning institutions are critical for shaping students’ character, and they provide the most powerful avenue for a young person’s positive development outside of the home and family unit. And sometimes, schools are the places where students feel the most physically and psychologically safe.

Today’s students are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis, stretching this fabric of social altruism so interwoven in the mission and purpose of the education system.

It’s hard to look past technology as a culprit. You could overlay a trend graph showing the rates of youth mental illness over the past twenty years with one showing smartphone ownership over that time and see approximately the same curve. Consider the Internet of Things: children of all ages now have overwhelming access to a barrage of information their developing minds just can’t fully process, with geopolitical threats, acts of violence, culture wars, and economic strains peppering their feeds and undoubtedly fostering feelings of fear, angst, and stress.

On an interpersonal level, access to social media skews students’ perception of what life “should” be like — how someone like them should look, what vacations they should be going on, what clothes they should be wearing, how many “likes” they should get and friends they should have, etc. The hollowness and lack of community online can drive loneliness and social isolation, and it opens the door to negative and harmful messaging and cyberbullying that often goes unchecked in the digital space.

All of this was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, which only served to exacerbate feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression — not to mention the psychological effects of dealing with the personal loss and fear associated with the pandemic’s death rate and global shutdown. COVID also came along at a pivotal moment in many young people’s development, driving a wedge into the acquisition of interpersonal skills so essential to their well-being. Its impact on students’ mental well-being, learning needs, and social development will be felt for years to come.

Schools today have greater responsibility than ever to provide their communities with ample resources for nurturing and promoting mental health. And the effort must be multi-pronged to be effective, engaging parents, caretakers, and students themselves as critical changemakers.

Properly Equipping Educators

It should go without saying that educators have a vital role to play here, but the second side of that coin is an already significant strain on school staff that is driving them out of academia in droves. Teachers need to be fortified with comprehensive training to effectively serve as frontline resources in responding to student needs. And, in the interest of their own self-preservation as well as their students’ self-efficacy, they must also provide skill-building education to the young people they’re entrusted with to help them prevent, identify, and effectively respond to mental health challenges in themselves and their peers.

But this positive community engagement can only come by fostering trust in the resources available; teachers must normalize help-seeking and work to remove stigmas around asking for support. Educational institutions can strengthen these efforts by striving to create an environment where all students feel capable of doing and being their best — there’s a big difference between reactively working to stop students from languishing and proactively ensuring they are flourishing. Educators and administrators should thus familiarize themselves with and implement tactics to foster Positive Youth Development (PYD) and create a culture of well-being.

Having data on students’ needs and strengths is key, but this must go beyond looking at aggregate numbers to better understand the unique needs of sub-populations within schools. For example, a recent study found that female students were more likely to experience bullying and suicidal ideation. Related research revealed that students with multiple marginalized identities — particularly those who identify as female –- are more likely to attempt suicide. When educators and leaders within the community have access to information like this, they’re better equipped to identify and respond to the signs of mental health struggles within their students (and ideally prevent them to begin with).

It’s also crucial for efforts related to wellness and safety to be approached with the same rigor and developmental scaffolding as traditional classroom curricula. One-and-done programs aren’t going to stick, especially when addressing these complex and deeply ingrained challenges. Investing in ongoing initiatives that speak to a range of interconnected challenges can have an incredibly synergistic effect — addressing contributing factors, preventing recidivism, building on prior learning, and establishing new skills. Schools should also arm their educators with materials and modules that cater to different learning styles to ensure students retain the information provided.

Beyond this, care for the caretakers should also be prioritized. Teachers and administrators struggle with their fair share of anxiety and depression as well. Providing them with the resources they need to protect their own mental health is invaluable.

The Role of Individual Students

Students today are more socially conscious and activism-oriented than ever before. They are inclined to hold institutions accountable to standing up for the things they value. Recent data from the 2020-2021 academic year found that 82% of graduating high school seniors regarded safety, well-being, and inclusion as important as academic rigor when deciding where to attend college. These expectations undoubtedly existed prior to students planning for college, thus shaping their expectations and behaviors around these issues in middle and high school.

Consider the rise of student-led mental health clubs. Seeing students step up and become visible advocates for change is inspiring, as this works to counteract often negative misperceptions of what’s normal or socially acceptable (e.g., how mental health issues are viewed by their peers) and builds a sense of care and support in the community. Overwhelmingly, students want to live and learn in safe and supportive environments. They care about issues of well-being, and should thus be leveraged as changemakers. Schools must view and treat them as an integral part of the solution to mental health challenges rather than part of the problem.

As such, educational institutions must provide students with the resources they need to feel safe, included, and holistically supported — both for individual students’ own benefit and to create a community of care. Students must be given the opportunity and tools to establish strong self-esteem and build a secure sense of self, which serves as a solid foundation for coping with challenges. They need to be able to recognize negative feelings within themselves and their peers and understand when it’s time to seek professional support.

Classmates and friends are often the first people a young person turns to when they’re struggling, and how their confidants respond can shape whether or not they seek additional help or take advantage of the resources available to them, like guidance counseling or formal therapy. Schools must provide students with training and easily accessible information on how to identify signs of mental health challenges in themselves and their classmates, as well as instruction on how and where to find help when needed.

Keep Parents in the Loop

Parents should not be excluded from efforts to foster Positive Youth Development. When in-school initiatives are accompanied by supportive and safe spaces at home, students are more likely to feel comfortable speaking up in times of crisis. Having a trusted adult they can turn to — whether that’s a parent, guardian, teacher, counselor, etc. — is a critical factor influencing a student’s trajectory, well-being, and success.

Parents must therefore be made aware of school-based initiatives and the resources available to their children so they can provide additional support at home. And schools should seek to understand and mitigate obstacles families may face in coordinating care. Does the school counselor have availability after hours for working families? Are there any financial barriers in place to accessing care? What types of mental health-related education are their children receiving?

Be sure to keep parents abreast of ongoing efforts to promote mental health so they can fill in the necessary gaps at home, and give them tools to be the best supports they can be.

Conclusion

K-12 schools shape the trajectory of students’ lives and the communities they’re part of. With teachers and administrators tasked with handling the diverse and very real-life challenges that students bring with them into the classroom (e.g., basic needs of food and housing security, violence or substance misuse at home, a lack of positive adult role models), they’re often stretched beyond their limits and capabilities.

Many are inadequately trained and ill-equipped to appropriately address the complex issues associated with student mental health — particularly in under-resourced districts that serve higher percentages of underrepresented students — which can exacerbate existing risk factors and inequities. As such, it’s imperative for schools to lean on resources like community partnerships and outside training providers to help them enhance school safety and wellness. This will fortify efforts to provide students and parents with the information and guidance they need to be and do their best — during the school years and beyond.


Rob Buelow serves as General Manager for the Education sector at Vector Solutions. He is an award-winning public health professional with deep expertise in leveraging social and behavioral science to solve the most pressing challenges facing campuses, companies, and communities.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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