Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Back to School & Mental Health

Young people with backpacks, school uniforms, and big yellow buses are once again part of the daily hustle and bustle in towns and cities around the country. It is a refreshing sight after the shuttering of schools due to COVID-19 in previous years.

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Beyond their core educational function, schools play a central role in protecting and promoting young people’s mental health. This work feels urgent and all the more critical given the escalating mental health concerns of youth in our country.

1. A Few Mental Health Statistics on U.S. Children and Teens. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC estimated between 13 – 20% of children and teens experience a mental health condition in a given year. Trends over the past ten years indicate that about one-third of high school students report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Suicidal behaviors among high school students increased during the decade preceding COVID, with 19% seriously considering attempting suicide. According to the CDC, we lost approximately 45,000 young people to suicide in 2020. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Earlier this year, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory highlighting the ever more urgent need to address youth mental health in the wake of the pandemic, which both worsened and exposed the already serious issues.

2. Schools Can Promote Mental Health. Good schools create experiences that generate a multitude of mental health benefits for students. Education’s core academic mission positively correlates with enhanced agency, which is associated with increased motivation and academic success. Schools are social communities, and students who feel more engaged at school are more likely to have a stronger sense of psychological well-being. Schools help students develop intellectually, socially, and emotionally so that they grow not only academically but also in psychological well-being, including, for example, emotional self-regulation, social skills, leadership, compassion, and self-awareness.

3. Schools as Partners in Mental Health. Children and youth spend most of their waking hours in school, making schools ideal settings for mental health prevention, early intervention, and treatment. For students experiencing mental health challenges, schools with integrated mental health services can better help students get the support that they need. Adolescents prefer accessing mental health services through school-based programs compared to outside medical settings, both for convenience and because familiarity increases comfort and trust. Comprehensive school-based mental health programs enhance academic success, improve school truancy and discipline rates, and increase high school graduation rates.

4. A Wicked Problem. Here’s the catch, and it’s not a new story. Addressing the mental health crisis in our country is a classic wicked problem. By definition, wicked problems are social or cultural problems where solutions are difficult – verging on impossible – to find because of diverse vested interests and values and the complex, interconnected nature of the issue. Generating solutions to wicked problems often suffers due to a lack of clarity in articulating and operationalizing what success looks like. Real-world constraints hamper solutions to wicked problems. The upstream factors and the social determinants contributing to our youth mental health crisis are not under the control of schools. Structural, cultural, historical, and systemic factors contribute to dramatic differences in quality, capacity, and resources across our schools. The schools with the greatest needs are often not well-positioned, sufficiently resourced, or prepared to meet the requirements.

5. The Hopeful Futures Campaign. Wicked problems require design thinking and systems-oriented solutions. Inseparable, a mental health coalition, brings such an approach to its mental health policy and advocacy work aimed at supporting and leveraging our schools to meet the needs of our youth more effectively. With the Hopeful Futures Campaign, Inseparable has created school mental health report cards to provide guidance and transparency on how states meet their students’ mental health needs. The report card provides an easy-to-understand snapshot of school mental health policy in each state. Working with federal and state government stakeholders, the Hopeful Futures Campaign is helping states implement comprehensive school mental health systems by including more school counselors, mental health professionals, social and emotional learning curricula, mental health literacy programs for students and teachers, regular mental health screenings, and more. It is one of many strategies needed to address the urgent youth mental health crisis.

Watching an elementary school child hop off the bus and skip across the street earlier this week was a joyful moment of childhood’s carefree energy and optimism. It was also a gut-punch reminder that the next generation is counting on us to do better.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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