The trends are painfully, tragically clear: When it comes to the declining state of mental health in America, it is our youth which is suffering the most. Rates of depression and anxiety are on the rise in a big way. Suicide rates are increasing across the board, and that trend is hitting our youngest the hardest. Suicide is now the 2nd leading death for those aged 10-34.
Clearly, more needs to be done in terms of helping our youngest battle their mental health demons and become strong, resilient adults. I will not pretend to have all the answers. But I think I have some pretty good ideas on how we can do a better job. To that end, here are 5 things every school needs to help their kids be mentally healthy and strong.
Adequate Psychological Services
The number of counselors which are available in our schools is tragically low. Available statistics recommend that there be one counselor for every 250 students. The actual number is more like 1 counselor to every 482 students. Pay and workforce development have a lot to do with it, but this is also reflective of competing priorities at schools, which are forced to spend more money to deal with other pressing issues. Simply put, we need to actually give schools the money to actually deal with these problems and protect and help our students.
Mental Health Education
I mean this in two ways. First is the obvious: All students should be taught more on mental health, recognizing symptoms of mental illness and what mental illness really is. This should go hand in hand with physical health, as far as I’m concerned.
I’d also argue that kids face more pressures and many are becoming less emotionally resilient. This means that they are less able to cope with the pressures of today, and as a result, becoming more mentally ill – and all this at a time when the pressures upon them are dramatically increasing.
So, what does this mean? We have to teach our kids how to cope, build resiliency and support their friends. I also think we have to teach digital education as much as we teach about other social influences, like peer pressure. This means that kids need to understand that what they see in the digital world isn’t what is happening in the real one.
Ways to Report Problems
Too many kids see problems in their friends but don’t know where to turn, particularly if it means getting a friend in trouble. As such, we need more ways – preferably anonymous or digital – which give kids a safe space to send troubled friends.
In Pennsylvania, we recently unrolled the Safe 2 Say text line. This program, run by the State Attorney General, allows for kids to report when there are threats of violence or mental illness among their friends. Even as early as April, the program was an overwhelming success, stopping violent acts and suicides.
Anti-Stigma campaigns which encourage kids to seek help and care for themselves are necessary. Younger generations have done better than older ones have at recognizing that mental illness is serious and treatable, but we still have a long way to go. Multi-media campaigns and speeches featuring ordinary Americans can help to address this stigma, and these kind of public awareness campaigns should be conducted in a culturally appropriate way which allows for students to recognize the severity and treatability of mental illness.
Improved Teacher and Staff Training & Resources
Last – I think we need to do a better job of helping teachers recognize the symptoms of mental illness, and then assisting them in handling it or getting kids help. Teachers are often asked to do quite a bit, but aren’t given the time and resources to handle their overwhelming responsibilities.
I’d also argue that all the training in the world won’t mean a thing if we don’t give teachers the resources to prevent mental illness in the first place, or at least create situations which don’t exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness. What does this mean? Easy. Create manageable class sizes. Allow teachers the space and flexibility to teach in a manner which will engage their kids. Stop with this obsession with standardized testing, and allow for kids to learn at their own pace and subject matter which interests them. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: All of this stuff is connected. Here are some great examples of how mental illness and education are linked. And if we acknowledge that to be the case, we can try to fix some of the deficiencies within our system.
And, as always, I know I’m missing stuff. But what? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let us know in the comments below!