As anyone who has ever been a child can attest, the notion of “a carefree childhood” is more myth than reality. Children, like everyone else, experience rejections and failures, disappointments and hurts. These and other garden variety stresses are part and parcel of being human, no matter what age.
Yet while ordinary disappointments are part of any childhood, depression, severe anxiety, and thoughts of harming oneself are not. But alarmingly, these and other mental health issues are on the rise among our nation’s teenagers, leading some experts and researchers to declare that America’s young people are in the midst of a mental health crisis. At the same time, many have begun to recognize that our schools have an important role to play in addressing this mounting epidemic.
Depression and Anxiety Are Skyrocketing
There is little doubt that today’s teens are suffering from mental health challenges in greater numbers than their peers of even a decade ago. According to recent research, 13 percent of young people surveyed between the ages of 12 and 17 said they’d had at least one major depressive episode in the previous year. That was an increase of 59% from 2007 to 2017. And girls seem to be particularly vulnerable. While depression increased for all teens over this period, the rise was higher for girls (66 percent) than for boys (44 percent).
Even more distressing, suicides among young people have also jumped. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that the suicide rate among youth aged 10 to 17 had increased by a shocking 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. Another CDC study found that among girls between the ages of 15 and 19, the suicide rate doubled from 2007 to 2015, and the suicide rate for boys increased by 30 percent over the same time period.
Along with depression, anxiety is also rampant among today’s children and teens. In the past, anxiety was frequently overlooked or dismissed by mental health professionals, but experts now understand that severe anxiety can be debilitating. What’s more, according to a report by the Child Mind Institute, “Anxiety is a gateway disorder that leads to increased risk of depression, school failure, substance abuse, and suicide.” The report concluded that while 30 percent of young people will experience severe anxiety, 80 percent of them will never get help.
What Is Plaguing Young People?
One striking finding of the research is that while mental health issues are skyrocketing among young people, there’s hasn’t been a similar increase in other age groups. So what exactly is plaguing America’s kids? Mental-health professionals have reached no consensus. And while there is likely no one, single explanation, a few core issues rise to the top in the search for understanding just what is troubling our young people.
The Pressure to Succeed
According to recent research, 61 percent of teens said they felt “a lot” of pressure to get good grades in school. Another 24 percent said they felt at least some pressure to do well. In fact, the pressure to succeed academically was the number one issue — by far — that teens cited as a cause of stress in their lives, about twice that of other worries, such as the pressure to fit in socially, look good, or excel in sports.
Today’s kids have grown up in the era of high-pressure, high-stakes testing. Parents, too, despite their best intentions, often unwittingly add to their children’s emotional burden. When students perceive that their parents are deeply invested in their success at all costs, they can feel an even greater pressure to do well to avoid letting their parents down.
Nearly all young people — 95 percent — own or have access to a smartphone. In a recent study, forty-four percent said they’re online many times a day, and 45 percent said they use their phones “almost constantly.” Psychology professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University has studied the cohort born between 1995 and 2010 and has dubbed them “iGen” — the first generation who can’t remember life before the internet. She and other researchers have little doubt that the overuse of technology plays a part in the soaring mental health crisis among teens and young adults.
“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”- Jean Twenge, San Diego State University
Technology and smartphones can erode teens’ well-being in a variety of ways. The constant self-comparison that social media breeds can lead vulnerable young people to feel insecure and left out. Painful cyberbullying is a well-known phenomenon of the internet age, and in fact, a majority of kids say they have experienced some form of online bullying. Constant technology use can and often does eat into teens’ sleep time, which can have detrimental effects on their mood and cognition. And too much time spent staring at screens reduces the amount of time teens spend engaged in other, healthier pursuits, such as exercise and face-to-face interactions with friends. In one recent study, more teens said they would rather communicate with their friends by text than face to face, even though they acknowledged that using screens when they’re with their friends diminishes the quality of these in-person encounters.
Trauma and Adverse Experiences
The pervasive gun violence of contemporary American society — nowhere more evident than in the mass shootings that have become commonplace in our culture — is a grim reality that today’s young people are forced to contend with. With each new shooting, the ever-present threat of violence is reinforced. Added to this, school shooter drills, intended to boost students’ sense of safety and control, can subtly exacerbate their fears and anxieties. Last December a Florida high school held an active shooter drill that was so realistic and frightening that some students sobbed hysterically, vomited, or fainted, and others texted farewell notes to their parents.
In addition to such widespread societal traumas, individual adverse experiences also take a heavy toll on the mental health of children and teens. The harmful experiences young people have to deal with run the gamut: extreme poverty, homelessness, violence, neglect, parental substance abuse. The list goes on. There’s no end to the hardships that life can throw at kids.
Overall, one in five students are dealing with some type of mental health issue that is impeding their learning and well-being. And the vast majority of them are not getting the help they need.
Schools Have a Crucial Role to Play
“The mental health problem is one of epic proportions,” says Amy Kennedy, Education Director at the Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting mental health equity. “To think that this can be handled outside of school is a false assumption. We need to address it right where the students are. It’s a challenge that is going to take resources and that teachers are unprepared for at this point. But it’s a challenge we can’t ignore.”
Involving schools makes good sense, not only because school is where young people spend much of their day, but also because students’ mental health is a foundation on which their learning and development rest. When emotional and behavioral conditions go undiagnosed or untreated, students’ ability to think, learn, discover, and grow is diminished, and, as noted above, they are at risk for greater mental health issues down the road.
Despite the rising need, the great majority of schools simply aren’t built to handle the mental-health crisis we’re facing. While teachers can often identify troubling behaviors, they lack the training and the time to intervene in any substantive way. Teachers, guidance counselors, school social workers, and school leaders are all overwhelmed as students with emotional and behavioral challenges consume an outsize portion of their time and attention.
Some Early Steps
As the disturbing statistics continue to pile up, inaction by decision makers and legislators is no longer an option. In 2018, Virginia and New York became the first states in the country to pass laws requiring mental health instruction to be provided in public schools. The Virginia law was spearheaded by three high school students, and it mandates mental health instruction for all public school ninth and tenth graders. The New York legislation is more far-reaching, requiring mental health instruction to begin in kindergarten and to run all the way through grade 12.
Across the country, cities and states are adopting a range of initiatives to address the overwhelming need in their schools. Some have increased the funding allotted for school counseling or added extra psychologists to their staffs.
While hiring more counselors and school psychologists can be a useful step, Kathy Reamy, a high school counselor who chairs the School Counselor Caucus for the National Education Association, cautions that it’s not enough.
“The services [these professionals] provide are typically responsive and brief therapy in nature,” Reamy says. “The misunderstanding of the role of the counselor often either prevents students from coming to us at all, or they come expecting long-term therapy, which we simply don’t have the time to provide.”
While any attempt at addressing the issue is welcome, what is ultimately needed are effective comprehensive mental-health services that are accessible and affordable for districts. Dr. David Anderson of the Child Mind Institute notes, “The research is very clear that when a school has a system-based, evidence-based, whole school approach, all students are more engaged academically.”
Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care
Increasingly school districts across the country are turning to a new model that incorporates comprehensive clinical programs embedded directly in the school day. Effective School Solutions (ESS), a provider of whole-school systems that support mental and behavioral health, provides the intensive clinical support to kids who need the most help. Students stay in their own school, enjoying everything their home districts offer, while benefiting from extensive wrap-around therapeutic services by experienced clinicians. The results are clear and measurable. Attendance and grades go up; disciplinary incidents go down. Social workers can better manage their caseloads, and in general, all educators regain countless hours so they can do what they are meant to do: teach their students.
We want to help all students learn and thrive. Contact ESS to learn how to implement these proven mental health programs in your district.