Adolescents Need More Proactive, Preventative Mental Health Supports in...

Opinion | Social-Emotional Learning

Adolescents Need More Proactive, Preventative Mental Health Supports in School

By Sara Potler LaHayne     Mar 24, 2023

Adolescents Need More Proactive, Preventative Mental Health Supports in School

This article is part of the guide: Making Sense of K-12 Student Mental Health.

Enough is enough. We feel this with each school shooting we endure. We feel this with each suicide that takes a loved one from us far too soon. More lives lost, more families devastated, more educators operating in fear. Each time, we’re left wondering if there’s anything else we could have done to prevent another tragedy.

It’s no question that American youth are facing an urgent mental health crisis. After a two-year decline in 2019 and 2020, suicide rates among American youth increased in 2021, according to a recent report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And there are increasing reports from adolescents of anxiety, stress and mental health challenges. A study released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2022 found that between 2016 and 2020, the number of children ages 3 to 17 diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent, and those diagnosed with depression grew by 27 percent.

“These data show a distressing picture,” said Debra Houry, the CDC’s chief medical officer during a briefing. “America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma.” The recent suicide of a 14-year-old girl in New Jersey emphasizes the urgency of this data. More broadly, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “mental health disorders have surpassed physical conditions as the most common causes of impairments and limitations in children.”

As the founder of an organization that provides social-emotional learning (SEL) experiences for preK-12 students, educators and families, and a mother of three, I spend a great deal of time considering what this crisis means for schools and communities. As caregivers, educators and school systems continue to navigate how to process and respond to the stresses and traumas young people experience, we need to continue to push the conversation toward proactive, preventative support. We cannot wait for tragedy to disrupt our lives and communities. We cannot wait for devastating losses of young lives taken far too soon. Schools need to lay a foundation that prepares students for independent learning and proactively builds students’ confidence, sense of self, purpose and belonging. Students need support developing their ability to cultivate meaningful relationships, honing social skills and in turn, strengthening their social, emotional and mental well-being.

Unfortunately our schools function much like our health system, which is often criticized for delivering “sick care” and not “health care.” It is a system focused too much on solving problems when they happen, rather than addressing the root cause before symptoms occur.

With the rise of violence and bullying happening in schools across the U.S., SEL is a proactive, preventative solution to address the core, underlying conditions that lead to the worst symptoms affecting students — violence, self-harm and bullying. School-wide (even better, district-wide) SEL programs implemented with fidelity can equip students with the tools they need to feel supported and cared for, and can provide adults with the tools to step in when warning signs indicate that a student needs more intensive support. Unfortunately, in the lives of our teens, waiting for the “symptoms” to rear their ugly heads often means it’s too late to save lives.

Typically, we tend to associate SEL programs with elementary-aged students. Many educators at the elementary level understand that social-emotional learning and development is baked into the job description — that part of their responsibility as educators is to support learners’ ability to identify, express and manage their emotions in healthy ways. Too often, the older students get, the less schools prioritize SEL. In part, that’s due to logistical challenges. In a middle or high school, it can be difficult to find the time to implement explicit SEL practices when students are changing teachers every period and there’s more emphasis on academics. And there isn’t always a clear person who should do that work — is it the homeroom teacher, the counselor, an adviser?

Over the last 15 years of doing this work, I’ve had conversations with many middle and high school teachers and administrators questioning the value of SEL at this age: Won’t students find this corny? Will they really want to share with one another? There’s no way my middle or high school students will engage in this work of expression and vulnerability. This tracks with what the research shows. According to a nationally representative RAND report published in 2020, elementary teachers reported higher levels of school support for SEL than secondary teachers did. The use of SEL curricula or programs was more common among elementary teachers, whereas secondary teachers reported greater reliance on community engagement, teacher-student check-ins and student involvement in school decisions.

The reality is that in many ways, adolescents are in more acute need of social-emotional support than their younger counterparts. The pressures put on young people to achieve, perform and produce, are greater than ever. When schools prioritize SEL by incorporating curriculum and training and developing a culture of belonging and connection, it can make a big difference in the lives of students. It can help educators better support students by recognizing when behaviors are out of character, having strategies to support them and a process for if and when their strategies fall short. Mental health supports, such as licensed professionals and partnerships with local mental health care providers, are also better leveraged when schools are able to identify the students — and adults — who need more intensive support.

Districts and communities also play a large role in supporting young people. Many districts form partnerships with local health care providers, offering a ladder of support that ranges from counseling to day treatment facilities and more intensive overnight care. Some have built a comprehensive system of mental health support for young people because of the preventative, proactive SEL framework the community has in place.

Increasing buy-in from schools, districts and communities is part of the equation. Placing more behavioral health professionals in schools is also key. But we also need to provide adolescents with strategies to cope with relationship challenges and to recognize emotions and behavior in themselves and others, so that they can thrive in school and in life. This can take the form of building in time for quiet reflection to better understand their emotions, guided breathing exercises to manage stress and build resiliency, opportunities to set incremental goals in order to pursue their passions and cultivate their dreams, and practice working with others who have different perspectives and opinions in order to enrich their communities.

When we send our students off to their places of learning, we expect them to feel nurtured, supported and, most of all, safe. Students spend the majority of their awake time in schools, so there’s a lot of responsibility on schools to help build the foundation for creating empathetic, caring, resilient citizens who are able to navigate conflict and challenges and build effective relationships with others. Just like learning a language, when we start cultivating these skills early, they grow over time and stay with us for life.

The grief and loss we have experienced is virtually incomprehensible. Parents, educators, community leaders and everyday citizens need to meet the moment. The public must acknowledge that the current state of affairs is not working. All children — not just elementary school students — deserve support and opportunities to develop the social and emotional skills they need to navigate and thrive in their lives.

If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline website.

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