Mental health is declining for America’s youth. According to a study by a Johns Hopkins professor, the chance of an adolescent experiencing major depression rose by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014. Parents, teachers and students need a solution to an epidemic that affects children all over the country. Mental illness impacts school performance and reduces quality of life. Children need hope, and schools are recognizing the importance of addressing mental health issues, both for academic purposes and to help students realize a brighter future.
In this article, we will explore the necessity of school mental health services and how they impact academic performance. We will also investigate solutions to the national mental health crisis among teens and suggest ways teachers and behavioral health professionals can make a difference. A foundation of mental health will prepare teenagers to embrace their future with optimism.
Educators and psychologists have recognized a need for mental health care in schools for over a century. Here’s a look at the early days of mental health services in schools and how they have evolved.
1. The Early 1900s
During the Progressive Era, many changes were taking place in American school systems. Schools increased the number of days in a school year, and enrollment numbers climbed. With more students attending school, teachers recognized a higher demand for addressing discipline problems. Some reformers saw mental health services as a way to resolve behavioral and academic issues. Also during this time, school counseling became a profession.
In 1909, Clifford Beers, William James and Adolf Meyer created the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, which is now known as Mental Health America. The committee aimed to improve attitudes toward mental illness, and they worked to prevent and treat mental health issues.
2. The ’50s and ’60s
During the mid-20th century, the public became more concerned about a lack of care for the mentally ill,which led to the Community Mental Health Act (CMHA) of 1963. CMHA helped construct community health centers and promote deinstitutionalization. Also during this time, school counselors focused on personality issues and human development in addition to addressing vocational goals, and became known as guidance counselors. The employment of guidance counselors drastically increased, and behavioral disorders became a major field of research and training.
3. The Late 20th Century
During the ’80s and ’90s, legislators passed several acts to promote mental health in communities and schools, which led to some notable milestones.
- 1986: In 1986, Congress passed the State Comprehensive Mental Health Services Plan Act to promote community care, as well as integrate mental and physical health with education and social services for children with emotional disturbances.
- 1990: In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act to protect mentally and physically disabled individuals from discrimination.
- 1992: In 1992, legislation mandated the Children’s Mental Health Initiative to help children and families access mental health services through a team of counselors, teachers, friends and others involved with the family.
- 1994: In 1994, the National Agenda to Improve Results for Children and Youth with Serious Emotional Disturbance promoted prevention and intervention about mental health issues, which eventually led to training and research in the rest of the decade.
- 1996: In 1996, the Mental Health Parity Act passed to help bring equity to health insurance for mental health care.
Also during this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified youth violence and suicide as a public health issue.
4. The Present
Today’s school systems face unprecedented challenges, such as the impact of social media on the teenage mind. Schools also need ways to address the growing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among teens. According to the CDC, the suicide rate for males between the ages of 15 and 19 has increased by 31 percent since 2007 and doubled for females.
As a result, schools recognize the need to provide mental health education and psychological services for students. Many states have increased funding for school counseling and have made psychologists part of the school staff. However, most states do not mandate mental health education, with the exception of New York and Virginia. These two states now require schools to include mental health education in their basic curriculum. The goal is to educate children about mental health issues and teach them how to recognize symptoms in themselves and friends before a crisis or tragedy occurs.
Mental health professionals naturally want to get to the root of the problem and figure out the cause for increasing rates of mental health problems in teens. Considering anxiety and depression impact school performance, parents are also concerned for the future of their children. Although mental health problems can have many different causes, here are four factors that may be contributing to the mental health epidemic and poor academic performance.
1. Pressure to Succeed
The adolescent brain is not mature enough to make long-term decisions. It’s understandable teens may feel overwhelmed when asked to choose a career path or decide what college they want to attend. Many times, parents and teachers place an enormous burden on teenagers to perform beyond their capabilities. Teens feel the need to meet unrealistic expectations set by parents, schools and social media, which contributes to anxiety and depression.
2. Social Media and Technology
Teens spend far too much time in front of a screen every day. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, children and teens spend almost eight hours a day consuming media. Screen time has replaced time spent with friends in the real world or playing sports outdoors. Teens also use social media sites where they can post anonymous remarks about peers, which can be devastating to an adolescent and lead to self-esteem and relationship issues. It seems technology is negatively impacting emotional development.
An excellent example of the impact of social media on a teenager’s mental health is the A&E documentary series “Undercover High.” This series features adults who went to a high school undercover to learn about modern teenage life.
They found smartphones and social media have made it more challenging to be a teenager, blaming technology for the rise in depression. Because students feel pressure to maintain their image on social media at all hours of the day, they equate their popularity with their self-worth. Students compare themselves to the perfect pictures they see on social media, and often do not consider the reality behind the photos.
3. Lack of Sleep
Many teens do not get enough sleep, and that affects their mental health and ability to perform academically.
For example, more than 87 percent of United States high school students get much less than the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. They may stay up late texting friends or sharing YouTube videos. Other teens have over-packed schedules, limiting the amount of time they have to sleep because they are too busy studying or participating in extracurricular activities.
When a teen does not get adequate sleep, they may have difficulty regulating their emotions. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of experiencing mental health problems, poor grades, car accidents and suicidal thoughts. A lack of sleep also makes it much more difficult to take tests and think critically through problems.
4. Lack of Exercise
Many schools have tight budgets and may not prioritize physical education. For example, the average physical education budget for U.S. schools is only $764 per school, according to the 2016 Shape of the Nation report. Another study by a Colorado State University researcher found 91 percent of study participants were not getting enough exercise every day. Study participants were between the ages of 16 and 19.
Physical activity is essential for both physical and mental health. Exercise boosts self-esteem, increases concentration and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression, all of which helps improve academic performance. Children and teens should get at least an hour of exercise every day, but it is often not the case.
Mental health problems affect every aspect of a teenager’s life, including their academic performance. When a teen feels depressed or anxious, they might withdraw from peers and neglect their responsibilities as a student. It may also be hard to concentrate on their studies. Here are a few ways mental health issues impact academic achievement.
- Decreases attendance rates: Students with mental health issues may miss school due to feelings of anxiety, fear, hopelessness or other symptoms related to a mental health problem. For example, high school students who experience psychosocial dysfunction are absent or tardy three times more than their mentally healthy peers. College students with mental health issues often take time off from school, then never return. However, students who use campus counseling services report an improvement in mental health and attendance.
- Reduces self-confidence: Students who experience mental health issues are more likely to view themselves as less academically competent than their peers. Educating students about the effects of mental health can help them change their self-perception. Teachers and counselors can also help students set attainable goals and learn new coping skills to help them move forward in their academic careers.
- Impairs the ability to concentrate: Students with mental health issues are more likely to find it hard to focus in the classroom and at home. Early treatment can help.
- Hurts grades: There is a link between high depression scores, low academic achievement and a decreased desire or ability to do homework or attend class. For example, nearly 23 percent of New York University students blame anxiety for impacting their academic performance, and almost 60 percent said depression symptoms have made it difficult for them to do schoolwork. A supportive in-school network of counselors and educators can help students overcome learning barriers.
- Discourages continuing education: Only 32 percent of students with severe mental health issues pursue higher education. In particular, there’s a correlation between anxiety and a reduced chance of attending college, and individuals with social phobias are almost twice as likely to fail a grade or drop out of high school.
As more schools become aware of the impact of mental health issues, they will push toward prioritizing mental health. There is hope for students who face mental health challenges, and schools play a significant role in helping students succeed despite any obstacles. Here are a few ways schools can promote mental health for current students and future generations.
- Make mental health education necessary: Other schools throughout the country can follow the example of New York and Virginia and make mental health education part of the curriculum. Educating students about mental health can help remove any stigma and encourage students to get the help they need. Students may feel less isolated when they learn the truth about mental health issues.
- Get psychologists and psychiatrists involved: Many times, students can’t make it to appointments outside of school. However, if a psychiatrist visits the school monthly, students can get what they need without having to worry about transportation. Kids are already attending school anyway, so it makes sense to offer mental health services where they spend the most time.
- Create an environment free of stigma: Schools can develop a mission to create an environment that promotes well-being and does not stigmatize mental health issues. Reducing the stigma attached to mental health issues benefits both students and teachers.
- Offer mental health screening: Schools might use mental health screening to identify students with mental health issues or to prevent mental health issues. One standard screening test is the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS), which can accurately identify students who are at risk of suicide. As an example, Tennessee uses C-SSRS screening in addition to their Youth Screen program.
- Make exercise part of the day: Schools need to set aside an hour a day for exercise. Physical activity helps students relieve stress, and it boosts mood and improves concentration.
- Let teens sleep: According to the CDC, the average U.S. start time for school is 8:30 a.m. However, some schools, like many in Louisiana, for example, start as early as 7:40 a.m. The American Academy of Pediatrics says the school day should begin no earlier than 8:30, as a later start time allows teenagers to get the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. Schools should modify their policies to allow teens to get more sleep, which will result in improved mental and physical health.
- Offer mindfulness training: Teaching mindfulness exercises can help students live in the present and relieve stress. It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to breathe deeply and focus on the moment. Mindfulness also helps increase attention spans.
- Encourage technology breaks: Teachers can help students break free from social media pressure and spend time exploring their unique qualities instead. They can set up spaces or times for tech-free breaks, and encourage students to pursue their interests, learn about themselves and value themselves beyond their image.
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Behavioral health professionals, teachers and parents can work together to increase mental health awareness among students. When students know they have a support system close by, they may feel more inclined to reach out for help when they need it. When students seek assistance in addressing mental health issues, they will be on the path to improved academic performance.
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