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The Growing Mental Health Crisis That Principals Can’t Ignore

Four parked school buses

The Student Anxiety Epidemic

Mental Health surveys have found that today’s teens and young adults are more anxious than ever before. In fact, they are the first to admit it. A recent Pew survey found that 70 percent of teens say anxiety and depression is a “major problem” among their peers, and an additional 26 percent say it’s a minor problem.

The Child Mind Institute reports that half of all mental illness occurs before the age of 14, and 75 percent by the age of 24. Twelve percent of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 say they have experienced one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among teenagers has been steadily on the rise since 2007. It’s gone up 30 percent among 15- to 19-year-old boys and doubled among girls, At this point, It’s the second leading cause of death in that age group.

Suggested Causes

Achievement Anxiety

As unbelievable as it may seem, many kindergarten teachers are reporting that they see kids as young as four years old, becoming anxious. And this anxiety doesn’t go away as the children age. On the contrary, by high school and college, many students have run out of steam. Anxiety—the mental-health tsunami of their generation—drowned them.

Today’s teenagers have grown up in classrooms ruled by “No Child Left Behind,” the law that introduced high-stakes standardized testing to every public school across the country. As a result, kindergarten children are learning to write full sentences that are timed instead of doing art or learning how to make friends. Such “extras” as recess, music, or art have been either reduced or eliminated entirely.

By the time these kids get to high school, high achievers are saddled with the overwhelming pressure to succeed. For some, SATs begin in eighth grade. This means that college is already on their mind when they are 13 years old! What happens if someone gets a “B.” Perhaps this will impair one’s chances of being accepted to his/her college or parents’ college of choice! And who wants to disappoint the parents?

Social Media and Smartphone Anxiety

A study published in Clinical Psychological Science points to a very troubling development in the lives of U.S. teens between 2010 and 2015. During those five years, the number of teens who felt “useless and joyless” surged 33 percent. The number of 13 to 18 year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

It has been noted that these dramatic increases coincided with cell phones becoming practically a necessity for most teenagers. While this correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, it is more than suggestive that the significant increase in mental health problems is a direct byproduct of the cell phone’s sudden ascendance.

Other research shows that using the cellphone has an addictive quality. In other words, the more people use their phones, the more anxious they are about using their phones, finding it difficult to put them down. This phone-induced anxiety becomes a positive feedback loop. Relief can only come when we either put them down or look away.

Limited Resources

Sadly enough, only 20 percent of students diagnosed with mental disorders receive adequate services, with these numbers even lower in Rural America. According to NASP (National Association of School Psychologists), the current national average is one school psychologist to every 1,700 students. Some districts have as few as one per 6,000 students; the recommended ratio is one psychologist for every 600 students.

Contemplating a New Paradigm

Although “No Child Left Behind” was replaced by the “Every Student Succeeds Act” in 2015, students are still stressed. The smartphone manufacturers are not going to slow down production; how can we begin to arrest this problem that is threatening to spin out of control?

The first step may be to challenge the conventional wisdom regarding which education is worthy of including in the curriculum. Realizing that poor financial awareness was negatively impacting U.K. society, financial literacy was recently integrated into the school curriculum. Physical education became compulsory in United States schools over 100 years ago and is continually being improved in terms of teaching children about the value of nutrition and exercise.

We seem to acknowledge that both financial awareness and physical health are areas worthy of more exceptional education to give our children a sustainable future. While that is highly praiseworthy, we need to go even further. There is still a gaping hole in the curriculum that is only getting wider, with potentially harmful societal consequences for generations to come. That gap is the lack of Mental Health education in our schools.

Why aren’t we arming our children with the critical tool of mental health to help them navigate through their adult years? Where is our calculated response to this growing epidemic that threatens to sweep away so many of our precious children?

What Principals Can Do

So you will ask, what can principals do? They are already juggling so many competing and disparate priorities, such as raising achievement levels, while at the same time doing whatever is necessary to ensure that students, faculty, and parents feel that there won’t be any violence within the walls of their schools.

Perhaps a three-tiered triage system suggested by many experts is the place to begin.

Tier 1 Education and Prevention

The objective of Tier 1 is to head off mental-health issues in students early, before they metastasize into more severe problems. This should begin with schools providing essential mental-health support to all students, such as universal depression screenings from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Aside from mandatory screening, educational programming that creates awareness of common mental health problems and common interventions should be established for the students and their parents.

Tier 2 Limited Intervention

Tier 2 will be directed toward those students who have been identified as either at risk for mental health disorders or already in the early stages of experiencing a problem. For these students, small group counseling will be provided to attempt to nip potential crises in the bud.

Tier 3 Intensive Counseling

Tier 3 will be geared toward those students who have exhibited chronic or intense mental-health needs that require medication, or more intensive intervention. These students will need daily counseling or check-ins, or close coordination with a clinical professional such as a psychiatrist.

A Caveat

For this triage-like system to work well, every school will need a team of mental health professionals including a school psychologist, social worker, and counselor; a data specialist; a partnership with a community mental health provider; and professional development for staff. Principals will need to consider ways to shift paperwork and other transferable parts of the workload away from mental health professionals to free up their time for working with students.

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