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How to Reach Students Experiencing Mental Health Struggles

Schools need to rethink how they approach student mental health support.

Dr. Josh Packard
Source: Springtide Research Institute - Posted June 14, 2021

by Dr. Josh Packard

Millions of middle school, high school, and college students will soon go back to school, and 42% will do so after spending the last two weeks feeling depressed most or all of the time.

This is according to a new study we at Springtide Research Institute have released, Mental Health & Gen Z: What Educators Need to Know, which surveyed over 3,000 students ages 13-25 in the last year and interviewed 80 more.

Today’s students are struggling with mental health at levels that have prompted the declaration of a national emergency as well as a special advisory from United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy: “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide…but the effect [of the pandemic] on their mental health has been devastating. The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation."

Springtide’s study suggests that Murthy is right: The number of struggling young people is alarming, and how we support and invest in their healing is critical, though our findings suggest a change of approach is needed.

The current crisis puts the attention on how to respond to young people’s immediate health needs. That’s good and necessary. Over half of students (55%) say they have experienced trauma, while about half (49%) say they’ve talked to a mental health professional such as a therapist, counselor, or psychologist in the last three months (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2021). But what’s missing is sufficient attention to long-term, proactive strategies to keep young people’s minds healthy.

This theme arose time and again in our interviews with students: Mental health resources at school were tailored to preventing crises, not promoting a mental-health-friendly culture.

“In my university context, performative mental-health resources, especially those that aren’t long-term, do more harm than good. Bringing in dogs to pet at the library during finals does not address the core element of why students have an uptick in hotline calls and stress and anxiety, like crippling anxiety, during finals and the weeks leading up to them. Therapy dogs aren’t going to solve that. We need consistent mental-health resources that address how academia is structured to make students stressed,” said Lana, a 22-year-old university student (Springtide Research Institute, 2022).

Students also told us that school resources designed to address mental health crises, like guidance counselors, seem to be more concerned with ensuring academic achievement than promoting students’ well-being.

“Even your guidance counselors at school will be like, ‘Oh, is everything okay? Oh no, it’s not? Well, I’ll help you, but you have to get a good grade on your test because you don’t want your grades suffering.’ We just need somebody to talk to who’s going to help us – who doesn’t have any motive besides just wanting us to get better. Our guidance counselors, even though they’re great, they have that mode of, like, `Okay, how are we going to pass those classes?’” said Julie, a 17-year-old high school student.

The prevailing model of assigning school counselors to address student crises on a case-by-case basis is not enough to meet the need of today’s students. This approach dovetails with what hasn’t been working for some time: Centering largely on the individual and the psychological. In other words, what can an individual do differently to improve their mental health?

While this is good and necessary, what’s missing is attention to structural factors that affect mental well-being: What can organizations do to better support the mental health of young people?

Source: lookstudio | Freepik

On this front, students told us that school initiatives to address mental health don’t also address the underlying reasons for stress—namely, the stressors that come from school.

“I have friends who are punished if they don’t get As. And I think it puts a lot of stress on them, especially when they’re already going through problems that are not recognized by their parents. I think there is a lot of pressure put on us to do really well, to balance all of these things, you know, especially when our mental health concerns are not being heard, it makes it even harder,” said Ara, a 16-year-old high school student.

Sophie, Sofia, and Acadia, high schoolers who serve as ambassadors for Springtide, wrote this in a joint statement: “Most high school students are never encouraged to pursue anything that isn’t directly related to college ambitions. We are expected to do clubs, sports, AP classes, college classes, and work, all so that we can get into a good college … At times it seems that schools’ systems push the idea of college and career so much that they forget to tend to students’ hearts and souls.”

To begin addressing the student mental health crisis on a systemic level, schools need to start by interrogating the expectations placed on students to determine whether they’re realistic or achievable. Onnie Rogers [the usual author of this blog page] teaches at an elite institution and is one of Springtide’s Research Advisory Board members. In our report, she tells a story about a class of hers where for some time, “The structure of my lectures and exams emphasized individual knowledge, performance, and competition, [leaving] little space for students to build meaningful connections, engage curiosity, or make novel discoveries.” Students often dropped the class if they didn’t get a near-perfect score on the first test.

Source: cottonbro/Pexels

Rogers realized that her pedagogy was engendering the kind of stress and competition that exacerbated mental health challenges. She restructured the course, aiming to cultivate a learning space centered on relationships, curiosity, equity, and discovery. “The difference was transformational,” she writes. “Students are more engaged and less anxious. They report how much they appreciate a learning space where they are encouraged and free to think, explore, ask questions, and genuinely learn.”

Imagine if schools promoted this kind of transformation across courses and curricula. I believe this is exactly the kind of approach that’s needed to support and invest in Gen Z’s mental health: Building an organizational culture at a school or university that is designed, at its very core, to be mental-health friendly, rather than amended, as an afterthought, to respond to mental health crises.

Josh Packard, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, which maintains one of the largest datasets on young people in the United States. He is the author of books including Meaning Making: 8 Values that Drive America’s Newest Generations and Church Refugees: Why People are Done with Church but Not their Faith.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021, October 19). AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of a national emergency in child and Adolescent Mental Health. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from https://www.aap.org/en/advocacy/child-and-adolescent-healthy-mental-dev…

Springtide Research Institute (2022). Mental Health & Gen Z: What Educators Need to Know. Springtide Research Institute.

Springtide Research Institute (2022). Springtide Ambassadors. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from https://www.springtideresearch.org/springtide-ambassadors

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, December 7). U.S. Surgeon General Issues Advisory on Youth Mental Health Crisis Further Exposed by COVID-19 Pandemic. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/12/07/us-surgeon-general-issues-adv…

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