The sobering statistics on a growing youth mental health crisis have become frequent headlines.
In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that as of 2021, more than one-third of high school students, including nearly three in five teen girls, had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. In a survey conducted in 2022 by the Institute of Education Sciences, leaders from more than two-thirds of public schools reported an increase in the number of students seeking mental health services since the pandemic, and nearly half of them said they could not effectively provide mental health services to all students in need.
Mental health is a vital public health issue. These statistics — and the children and teens behind them — provide a clear call to action to prioritize prevention. Rather than intervening only when a student is suffering, we must take a preventative approach to mental health.
Think about it like this: We don’t put a new driver behind the wheel of a car and assume that seatbelts and airbags will keep them safe. While both can offer protection, we prepare new drivers by teaching them the rules of the road and equipping them with the skills they need to drive safely. Similarly, we must prepare children for managing distress and provide them with the coping skills to respond when adversities appear.
Most mental health challenges do not arise because of an underlying sudden biological change; rather, there are risks and protective factors that promote or hinder development and impact the risk of developing mental health conditions. And every young person deserves access to preventative tools that can help them recognize and manage mental health risks, and cope with common obstacles they face in life.
Because schools are where young people spend the bulk of their days, they are important places to develop these types of skills. Teachers do not need to become therapists, but they do need to be prepared to teach and model skills and strategies that help learners navigate academic, social and emotional challenges inherent to school. To do that effectively, they need access to evidence-based programs that support social and emotional development, professional learning opportunities related to student mental health and school leaders who prioritize the well-being of young people.
The good news is that there is a wealth of evidence around practices and curriculum that can help young people learn coping skills and other preventative strategies, and many of the options are cost-effective and can be implemented in schools. Mental health literacy, for example, a framework that conceptualizes recognition, knowledge and attitudes around mental health, can help school staff and students obtain and maintain positive mental health, understand and identify mental illnesses and seek help if needed. Studies have shown that mental health literacy programs can improve recognition, management and prevention of mental health challenges and can decrease stigma about mental illness and treatment in school communities.
Similarly, incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools can help young people create multiple protective factors that can act as a shield against mental health challenges, including building positive relationships, regulating emotions and solving problems. Hundreds of independent studies have found that students who participate in evidence-based SEL programs in school experience less emotional distress and behavior problems. Research also indicates that SEL helps young people better manage short-term symptoms related to anxiety and depression, and some studies have shown that SEL creates a healthy school climate that improves students’ sense of emotional safety and belonging. That’s critical for young people right now.
Well-being and academic achievement are closely intertwined. Students have a hard time learning if they are struggling to focus, cope or connect with their peers and teachers. It’s also clear that teachers who take time to build relationships with students are more likely to spot early signs of concern and engage students in productive learning — and, if necessary, refer them to the appropriate mental health services.
That doesn’t mean we should conflate promoting mental wellness with treating mental illness. The intention of teaching SEL and mental health literacy in schools is not to treat or diagnose mental health conditions. Prioritizing these areas of learning does not replace the role of mental health providers or detract from the importance of therapeutic responses for children who need them.
An effective public health approach to the youth mental health crisis requires equipping schools communities with prevention and intervention strategies so that all students are supported and protected.
This is a pivotal moment for young people — and there’s no quick-fix, one-stop solution for the crisis. But it’s clear that we need to rethink how we approach the layered challenges facing our youth and prioritize the well-being of every one of our nation’s children.