Taking stock of student mental health

Key points:

After the COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on youth mental health, much attention continues to be paid to the topic, with everyone from mental health experts and educators to parents and policymakers pointing to alarming statistics about the state of young people’s emotions and mindsets.

But was youth mental health in a great spot before COVID caused mandatory at-home and hybrid learning, social distancing, and a complete disruption in students’ ability to connect with peers and receive support at school? The short answer: No.

May’s Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportune time for school leaders and educators to take a closer look at the state of student mental health in their schools and districts, identify gaps and priorities, and shore up supports to ensure students feel a strong sense of community.

Taking stock of youth mental health

While the COVID pandemic did not initiate downturns in student mental health, it certainly exacerbated mental health and well-being struggles for youth.

“Mental health challenges in youth didn’t start with COVID. CDC data indicates rates of mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and suicide, were increasing pre-pandemic at concerning rates. Then they increased further, exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Dr. Sharon Hoover, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. Hoover is also co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health and director of the National Center for Safe Supportive Schools.

It’s hard to tease apart the exact factors contributing to a continued decline in youth mental health, Hoover noted, but many argue social media, the pandemic, and increased economic stress on families have impacted the mental health of young people.

“Things were in a downward spiral prior to the pandemic, and they’re exacerbated now–some of the disparities in terms of outcomes and access to support were there pre-pandemic, and are now worsened,” Hoover said.

“Social media is by far one of the most major contributors,” said Jeremy Glauser, chairman and founder of eLuma, an end-to-end K-12 student services solution for mental health and special education offering online speech therapy, individual and group counseling, psychoeducational evaluations, and mental health services. “Tied to social media is bullying and the ‘digital cursor courage’ that has plagued our youth. It’s not just social media, it’s the cursor courage we get through digital means, including bullying and shaming. Everything that research is pointing us back to is that the main underlying issue is isolation and hopelessness. It’s not that we’ve never felt it; it’s just that social media and digital tools exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness and our youth don’t have the tools to learn how to cope with those feelings.”

Some communities–particularly LGBTQ+ youth, youth of color, and youth in other minority groups–were disproportionately impacted during COVID and had fewer mental health resources available to them.

“Our youth of color and minoritized communities, including LBGTQ+ youth, are more vulnerable. Their rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts are higher. Access to care is often lower for a variety of reasons, including stigma,” noted Hoover. “None of that came about because of COVID, but lots of it was brought to light with COVID. The disparate impact of COVID itself on communities of color was pretty striking in terms of mortality.”

Despite less-than-encouraging statistics around youth mental health, the pandemic did put mental health in the spotlight–the pandemic’s so-called silver lining. It also highlighted the fact that, while mental health is important, students often lack the tools to support positive mental health practices.

“The biggest thing we’ve seen is a greater awareness [around mental health] now,” Glauser said. “Unfortunately, 1 in 5 kids is facing a serious mental health concern. By the age of 14, most of our mental health issues have already formulated–it’s hard to think about, [but] suicide is one of the leading causes of death for youth. We can have a big impact on young people and hopefully give them the tools and resources they need.”

SEL and a sense of community

SEL is “an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions,” according to CASEL.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is not the same as mental health, but strong social-emotional skills can absolutely support positive mental health, experts say.

“While SEL and mental health are not the same, SEL can promote positive mental health in many ways,” CASEL specifies. “By promoting responsive relationships, emotionally safe environments, and skills development, SEL cultivates important ‘protective factors’ to buffer against mental health risks. In this way, SEL is an indispensable part of student mental health and wellness, helping to improve attitudes about self and others while decreasing emotional distress and risky behaviors. SEL should be implemented as part of a system of mental wellness supports and resources that include promotion, prevention, early intervention, and treatment.”

There are two misconceptions around SEL, said Dr. Sheldon Berman AASA’s lead superintendent for social-emotional learning and a former district superintendent, serving 28 years in four districts. One is that it’s therapy, which it is not. It’s a prevention program. The second misconception lies in the way SEL is taught–it isn’t a single lesson or something that takes away from core academics and instructional priorities.

“The best of SEL is twofold: On the one hand, it’s thinking carefully about the culture and climate of our classrooms so students can build a sense of belonging and community. That’s the core of the work. The second element is a focus on helping kids develop coping skills to help them deal with bullying, conflicts, managing emotions, and self-regulation,” Berman said.

Creating a positive school community and classroom culture might take the form of morning and afternoon meetings in elementary classrooms, or in advisory programs at the secondary level. These, Berman said, build that critical sense of connection and community and create safe spaces for students to work through challenges.

“People think of it as 30-minute lessons that take time out of the day and that SEL competes with academics. You can deeply integrate SEL into the school day, and what ends up happening is that when you have a sense of community, that sense of community makes it much easier to teach. There aren’t discipline issues or disruptive issues–kids like each other and work well together, and that’s what you’re looking for. That’s the part that people don’t understand–that it’s about creating a sense of community and belonging,” Berman said.

Some policymakers, educators, and even parents have promoted attacks on SEL, insisting that it is dangerous to students and has no place in schools. But SEL supporters note that these attacks are misguided and are often based on fundamental misunderstandings of what SEL actually is.

“One of the issues with some of the extremist reactions to social-emotional learning is a real misunderstanding of SEL. Attacks on SEL not only insulate kids, but it’s more likely that they will end up with mental health issues because there’s no place for them to talk, to be who they are, or build a sense of community,” Berman noted.

“It’s important to recognize the role SEL plays in producing young people who can contribute to our democracy, support mental health development, and contribute to their communities,” said David Adams, CEO of the Urban Assembly and a CASEL board member. In fact, SEL helps students well beyond K-12 and college, serving as a foundation for skills that will build success in personal and professional relationships.

“Some of the more philosophically-based SEL approaches have been under attack, and these are things that are adjacent to the concept of SEL but aren’t necessarily related to the science of SEL,” Adams said. “The science of SEL says the most important predictor of social-emotional competence is social-emotional skill development. And the most effective way of developing social-emotional skills is teaching those skills in ways that are sequenced, active, focused, and explicit. That’s where the research is. The research continues to demonstrate that when you look at things like school climate, SEL skill development is positively related to developing school climate.”

Experts’ top priorities for student mental health

“There was a point in time where we thought we didn’t need to brush our teeth or care for our physical body. Today we know that mindfulness is like brushing teeth–it’s a daily practice that helps you be present in your reality in the midst of so much digital distraction,” Glauser said. “We’re on a path where mental health will have parity with physical health. My hope is that we will gain the literacy and understanding of how to really care for our mental health just as we have our physical health.”

For educators and school administrators, evaluating current SEL practices and deciding where to focus or increase efforts is “often a challenge, because the comprehensive school mental health field is really big,” Hoover said. “Most schools have something in place–a school psychologist or bullying prevention. What can feel really hard [to assess] is, ‘Do we have everything in place and how well are those components in place?’”

Hoover recommends a school mental health evaluation tool called the SHAPE System to help school and district leaders map out what multi-tiered system of supports (known as MTSS, a framework that helps educators outline academic and behavioral strategies for students with varying needs) are in place. This first step can help school leaders assess how they’re doing, where they are, and where they want to go.

“The most important thing we can be doing is teaching social-emotional skills to young people,” Adams said. “When we teach skills to young people, they develop competence. When they develop competence, they have the ability to solve intrapersonal and interpersonal problems in ways that support their ability to be successful in school and life.”

Once school leaders have confirmed they are teaching social-emotional skills, the next step is to evaluate how and through what methods those skills are taught. For example, group projects, homework assignments, or roles on a sports team activate students’ communication, collaboration, listening, goal-setting, and personal responsibility skills.

“How have you taught students to collaborate? How have you taught students to communicate effectively? How have you taught them to disagree effectively? These are things we can do to set our kids up for success, not just in school, but in work and life,” Adams said. “Doing a scan of how a school is activating social-emotional competencies can then give schools and districts insight into what they need to be teaching so students can be successful.”

Helping educators help students

While many mental health struggles absolutely require attention from trained and certified mental health professionals, helping students build general mental health awareness and literacy is something that can–and should–be done in schools.

A popular analogy likens mental health awareness to dental hygiene. If thousands of students suddenly develop cavities and need fillings or root canals, people will call for hundreds of new dentists to enter the profession. And while nobody is denying the importance of dentists, there are things students can learn to maintain dental health that don’t require a dentist’s instruction. These preventive measures, such as brushing and flossing teeth, can be learned anywhere. Dentists are still needed, but when students learn and then develop preventive skills, they can take better care of their teeth and won’t all develop cavities.

To summarize: Mental health professionals are and remain critical to the mental health field, but educators should be equipped with the tools necessary to give students basic mental health awareness and literacy. This helps students understand and advocate for their own mental health.

“One of the things we’ve talked a lot about with districts recently is that we default to saying that we need to hire more mental health professionals. There is a need for that, but we also really want districts to think about moving upstream and doing things that support a broader array of students,” Hoover said. “Not everybody needs weekly therapy. We need to think more broadly about what we mean by supporting mental health in schools–that might be infusing mental health literacy into classrooms, which a lot of states are now legislating. Everybody can benefit from understanding mental health, what it is, and how to obtain help. That’s one way we want to move upstream–to think about how we infuse this into our schools.

“The other piece is thinking more broadly about who provides mental health services–it doesn’t just have to psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. How do we help peers and equip educators, like our teachers, with tools they can use to create mentally healthy classrooms?” she added.

Another component of in-school supports is online therapy and telehealth, which more districts are incorporating to meet the increasing demand for student mental health services.

eLuma works with schools and provides a tool called the DESSA–a social and emotional screener from Aperture–to identify at-risk students and those who are in need of interventions.

A social-emotional screener helps educators identify students who might benefit from more targeted MTSS interventions. This may look like a student working in small groups or one-on-one with school guidance counselors, or receiving additional interventions with a school psychologist.

“Rather than taking a subjective approach to referring kids, universal screening takes a quantifiable approach to identify the kids who can use additional interventions. All kids should receive some sort of mental health literacy in the classroom,” Glauser said.

eLuma combines Aperture’s universal screener with eLuma’s end-to-end student services solutions for MTSS, helping districts deliver targeted and evidence-based interventions to strengthen social and emotional. Having access to online mental health supports enables schools and districts to connect students with the interventions they need.

“The biggest thing is accessibility to a qualified professional,” Glauser said. “When we open it up to telehealth, our ability to recruit high-quality people who may not be able to physically go to a location goes through the roof. Oftentimes, we’re recruiting for experience and quality, whereas geographic location can be a limiting factor for schools.”

Looking ahead

Educators will play an integral role in helping students develop the social and emotional skills to support positive mental health patterns and mental health awareness.

“You don’t need to be a dentist to tell kids how to brush their teeth. You don’t need to be a therapist to teach kids how to recognize their emotions. And that’s where I think some of that disconnect is, when we talk about that mental health crisis,” Adams said. “Some people think the only way to deal with this is to hire 100,000 more therapists, notwithstanding the fact that there aren’t 100,000 more therapists to hire. And there aren’t going to be 100,000 therapists to hire anytime soon. But what we can do is teach basic, fundamental skills around recognizing emotions, understanding emotions, and labeling emotions.”

Overall, mental health and SEL experts continue to emphasize the critical nature of youth mental health and the need for skill development in schools.

“We are in a mental health crisis, but the solution isn’t necessarily mental health therapists, in the same way that we can be in a dental hygiene crisis, but the solution isn’t necessarily more dentists. The solution can be development of practices, techniques, and universal things like fluoride in the water that make the crisis less intense for the systems we have,” Adams said. “We think about social-emotional skill development as part of the infrastructure for how we develop young people. There are skill developments that can happen in schools. [Educators] can teach these great skills.”

In fact, educators are uniquely positioned to teach social-emotional competencies.

“Teachers are the most effective deliverers of these skills,” Adams said. “I want to say that again–teachers are the most effective deliverers of these skills, and these skills can be done through a K-12 space. It doesn’t have to be done through a therapist. It doesn’t have to be done through a psychiatrist. We’re not talking about giving therapy to all kids. We’re talking about teaching these fundamental skills that allow young people to deal with intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies.”

Laura Ascione
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