Just because this school year has ended doesn’t mean the crisis facing our nation’s youth is over.
In fact, the data suggests the exact opposite.
During the 2022-23 school year, suicide skyrocketed to the second leading cause of death among children aged 10 to 14 in the United States. Research shows some youth are more affected than others. Nearly 1 in 3 high school girls said they had considered suicide. Black students were more likely than Asian, Hispanic, or white students to attempt to take their own life. And 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ students reported having made a plan to do so.
Schools are feeling the strain. Seventy percent of public schools nationwide reported an increase in students who have sought mental health services since 2020, yet only 12 percent of educators strongly agreed that their school was able to effectively meet the need. Meanwhile, our Nation’s Mental Health Report card reported that only two states — Idaho and D.C. — meet the recommended ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students, with some states staffing only one school psychologist per more than 4,000 students.
Are we surprised that students are slipping through the system? These aren’t “cracks” in school-based mental health supports — they are craters thousands of students wide.
To be sure, the crisis our youth face is not exclusively about their mental health. If you are keeping score, you know that the first leading cause of death among youth in the U.S. right now is guns.
Most gun violence that affects children and teens occurs outside of school. But any violence that does take place in a classroom or during an educational activity is unacceptable. In 2022, there were more school shootings than in any year since 1999. In 2023, the K-12 School Shooting Database recorded 182 gun-related incidents at a school to date. That’s more than one for every day of school this year. In June, a deadly shooting at a high school graduation ceremony took the lives of an 18-year-old graduate and his father and left more people injured and traumatized.
What will it take for the health and safety of our nation’s youth to be a national priority? Avoidance may be a popular emotion regulation strategy, but summer vacation won’t stop these challenges from persisting when schools reopen this fall.
Neither will banning books. Nor will prohibiting students from talking about gender identities. Nor will removing social and emotional learning in schools. Stripping our school systems from instruction about the beautiful differences that define us while removing the evidence-based programs that teach the skills and strategies required to speak across differences is not helping anyone.
Neither are the active shooter drills. Decades of science confirm that students do not learn when they do not feel safe. It’s that simple. At a time hallmarked by record-low student achievement, efforts to fortify our nation’s schools with physical protection measures and active shooter drills have backfired. Did you know that 95 percent of U.S. public schools students participate in active shooter drills, despite there being no credible evidence they are effective at promoting safer experiences at school? Oh to be sure, there is mounting evidence, however, regarding how these interventions are increasing students’ stress, anxiety, depression, concerns over death and that student achievement diminishes in the days and weeks following a drill.
What are we protecting our kids from, if it’s not safe for them to learn in school?
Intractable problems require collective solutions. Every one of us can play a role in advancing the health and safety of all kids next school year. And we don’t need to wait until the first day of school to start:
Parents, check in with your kids. How are they feeling about this past school year? Don’t stop at “relieved it’s over.” Emotions are information. Lean into the source of their relief. What do your kids wish they had this past school year to support them? Can they identify one trusted adult in their school? Relationships matter for students’ experiences at school; trusting and supportive relationships drive positive student academic achievement and social and emotional development. Start with relationships. Reach out and thank an educator for making a difference or request their support for your child.
Educators, consider, who are five students from your classroom who will need school to work for them most next school year? What can you do to ensure the educators who will work with them have what they’ll need? Do you have what you need to support the next batch of students who are coming? Ask your administrators how you can secure these supports, such as training, personnel, and time, for next school year.
Administrators, consider, who are five educators in your school who will need school to work for them most next school year? How can you leverage your ESSER funding and state resources to build systems of support for your school community? What initiatives are already underway that can be connected to promote school mental health and safety? What policies would help you help your students and school right now? Reach out to your local policymakers.
Policymakers, investing in school-based mental health supports in the form of personnel and universal programming is cost-effective. It is more expensive to treat a problem than to preemptively address the symptoms. In fact, investments in social and emotional learning have been found to have an $11 return for every $1 invested. How are your investments benefiting the health and well-being of your school communities? Circle back to your constituents.
The most irresponsible thing we could do as a nation right now is expect that when we return for next school year, our kids will be alright. Our students are giving us all the warning signs, and we need to see them before it’s too late. Let’s make the 2023-24 school year go down in history as the school year that we restored our commitments to our nation’s youth and each other and came together to improve the conditions that will enable them all to thrive.