Silent Epidemic: Mental Health in Our Schools

Our kids are spending more and more time at school. Some school districts are increasing the number of classes for middle and high school students so they would have to stay at school for longer each day. More and more students are participating in clubs to gain more resume-builders for college. As qualifications needed for jobs become more demanding and competition grows fiercer, the youth of today are coming under more and more pressure. CDC data shows that more and more of our children fit the diagnostics for depression, anxiety, OCD, etc and that it’s been a growing trend for years now.

Part of it is due to our increased understanding of and increased testing for mental disorders but it is also clear that more people are suffering from them and also not getting any help. The stigma around mental health and the barriers to adequate healthcare are only making it harder for people to get help.

In a couple of my previous articles, I talked a little bit about some of the era-defining events that has happened during our lifetime and how those events have shaped much of our beliefs and our behaviors and this rise of mental health issues is another manifestation of it.

Many parents, especially those significantly removed from their own school experiences by time, aren’t equipped to address or even detect signs of mental distress in their child. Most teachers don’t have significant mental health training either and coupled with their workload, it often leaves very little time or resources for them to connect with students and make sure they’re okay.

Our school systems and parents as they are right now are not equipped to handle this quietly growing problem. Teachers have anywhere from 20 to over 30 students in each class. Counselors are in charge of over a 100 students at a time. In my experience, I never saw my counselor for anything more than to schedule next year’s classes. My high school’s school psychologist was spread between three schools; that’s over 1,000 students!

I am currently in college and mental healthcare is hard to come by. There are “drop-in hours” the same way you can drop in your academic advisor’s office. When you try to get an extended session with one of their psychologists, there’s often a two-week backlog, probably even longer after quarantine started. Even during normal times, you get about one or two meetings with a psychologist within the school before they refer you out; there is just not enough resources to serve the entire school.

It also needs to be said that mental health experts are overwhelmingly white and that’s a problem when the children they’re supposed to help aren’t. That’s not to say that being white automatically means that they can’t or won’t relate to students of color but that there is a certain level of disconnect that can never be bridged no matter how much training or experience someone has because it’s just not the same. This is especially important for small children who can’t yet put their experiences into words.

In research, a lack of diversity means there is a blindness. Issues and perspectives never get considered because no one thinks they’re important or worth studying. The same can be said of research participants. If the data doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community, then it shouldn’t be used to inform policy.

Mental health and interpretations of symptoms differ by cultural and ethnic background so making sure our mental healthcare workers have multicultural training is essential for serving a diverse community.

Moreover, as Americans, our culturally accepted goals and the pursuit of the American Dream can be seen in our idolization of money and our fixation on conspicuous consumption. As the internet has connected more people than ever, one of the negative side effects can be seen in the “flex” culture that has, in recent years, seen a massive growth online with the audience mainly being made up of younger children. Not only are a majority of the online personalities who are the biggest players in this culture not good role models but it also encourages an unhealthy lifestyle that most of us can’t afford. The effect of this sort of exposure at such a young age hasn’t been studied for long-term effects due to its recency but it is already showing shoter-term impacts on the psyche of our kids.

The resurgence of racism and violence in the past five years is also something that not a lot of educators and parents are not prepared or even willing to talk about with their children. It is well-established that racial trauma has subtle, lifelong, transgenerational consequences for the individuals affected. Less common topics like Native American issues or environmental racism affect the mental and physical health of millions of children and yet, they aren’t very prevalent in the public consciousness or even in those working directly with our children.

Another problem area would be the lack of awareness within the student population themselves. If everyone is suffering from the same things, then it’s just a meme. It’s normal to feel tired constantly. It’s normal to have a mental breakdown every two weeks. It’s normal to take nine AP classes that assign two to three hours each of homework every night. It’s actually good to only have panic attacks twice a week rather than five times a week. Talking about how little sleep we got became almost a contest. The most my high school did was Mental Health Week but in reality, it was just a short read-off on the morning announcements and some posters hung up in the bathrooms. A lot of times, students don’t know that what they’re experiencing isn’t normal because their peers are going through the same thing.

Then, there is the fact that some symptoms and behaviors are treated as being entirely voluntary and are punished accordingly. There is no attempt to really understand the student; again, there is simply not enough resources to address the problems of most students. Neurodivergent behavior is only seen as disruptive or abnormal and the only address is punishment which, predictably, worsens the situation and may stop them from seeking help in the future.

All of these reasons and more are why we need better mental healthcare in the places that our kids spend 1/3 of their day. There is a sore lack of people who are equipped to see beyond the tired faces every morning and we are all the worse as a society for it.

I’ll talk to you next time.

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