“Suicide is the second leading cause of death among high school-aged youths 14–18 years after unintentional injuries” (cdc.gov).
I want you to read that again.
Being a teenager myself, that fact is alarming. Being a teenager who struggles with mental health, that scares me even more.
It’s no question that everyone experiences mental health. Where you stand on that spectrum depends on each individual, but it’s real. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to isolate us, we can assume that the majority of people’s mental health is declining.
Before the pandemic, mental health was still there, but only recently have we begun to be so open to talking about it. And while that vulnerability truly is amazing, a lot of us have been trying to fight the stigma for a lot longer than just this year.
As schools hopefully begin to take mental health more seriously I can’t help but wonder: Are schools actually ready to help their students relating to their mental health?
The simple fact is no. Schools are not ready.
As of now, schools spend too much money and effort to punish students for things like drug and alcohol abuse or failing grades. These can be shown through backpack searches, the presence of police in school buildings, and the overall threat of being watched.
“…much of the national conversation has been inherently reactive, focusing on ‘crisis response’—to school shootings in particular—rather than a systematic approach to helping students with their mental health needs” (Walker).
I believe that, in most cases, the root of a student’s misbehavior can boil down to what is causing them stress or worry. Did they experience some sort of trauma? Loss? Hardships at home? But schools often don’t think of this, they just act.
“Acting out” can also be linked to a number of mental illnesses-which a student might not be diagnosed with because most classrooms don’t give any opportunity for students to learn about mental illnesses.
“… half of all mental illness occurs before the age of 14, and 75 percent by the age of 24—highlighting the urgent need to create systemic approaches to the problem.” (Walker). So mental illness is there. But, again, they don’t seem to care about that.
Students don’t even have to be “acting out” in order to experience mental illness, but the stigma surrounding mental health leaves students wondering why they feel the way they do.
I personally felt confused about my mental health for a long time. Until I was diagnosed with anxiety, I had felt shame when it came to being vulnerable.
I had to get my diagnosis on my own terms-I was never taught anything that I actually remembered through school and there were no resources that I knew about at the school.
Luckily, I have parents who support me in my mental health journey and got me to a therapist, but a lot of kids don’t have that luxury. They depend on school to get them the help they need.
This is why we need schools to care.
Most schools have started to take note of the shifts in talk about mental health, but their solutions mainly revolve around hiring more counselors or training teachers, who are already overworked (Walker).
And counselors usually only give very general resources-which are still very important-but every student experiences different life circumstances, so it’s hard to limit it to one type of resource (What’s the Difference: School Counselor vs. School Psychologist?).
Don’t get me wrong, there can be amazing counselors and teachers out there who do help with the discussion of mental health, but these steps aren’t as effective as others.
Okay, so if increased punishments and police presence are perpetuating these issues, and training teachers along with an increased number of counselors isn’t working, what will?
In the long run, it’s hard to say what will work because this is really the first time mental health is being talked about on such a large scale.
However, the act of educating others and being open to talking about mental health is the first step.
In schools, this could be shown by implementing a more in depth mental health curriculum-letting kids recognize their symptoms and get help early. This education could also include information on how to talk to others and help your fellow peers who are struggling. “The breaking down of stigma and misconceptions about mental illness has to start in schools.” (Mclean).
Instead of hiring more general counselors, schools should consider hiring specialized therapists or school psychologists. Some examples could be grief counseling, eating disorder therapy, substance abuse counseling, and guidance and career counseling.
When it comes to mental health, there are very helpful general rules and aids like self-care, therapy, and medicine, but a lot of the time people need specific help. Counselors can be very helpful for most students, but having a variety of available resources is key to helping students in the long run.
Additionally, schools can provide students with papers that have national and local hotline numbers, mental health specialists in their area, and coping skills.
When it comes to mental health resources in schools, most schools lack. A lot. But it can be a lot easier than people think to help teach students how to take care of themselves-especially if started at a young age.
We can hope that through the continued talk and support surrounding mental health schools can shift their priorities.
Despite mental health having always been a problem, maybe issues arising from COVID will finally push schools to stop ignoring the signs. To stop believing that all students are happy and ready to take on life because of the 7 AP courses they took in one school year, and finally provide us with some real life skills.