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Schools need mental health resources now more than ever

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Moving forward requires focus. Mashable’s Social Good Series is dedicated to exploring pathways to a greater good, spotlighting issues that are essential to making the world a better place.


Let’s just say last school year was challenging for students, to say the absolute least.  

With campuses largely shuttered and students cooped up in a wide variety of home environments, the CDC a 31 percent increase in mental health crisis visits for youth ages 12 to 17 from April to October 2020, compared to the same time the year before. 

Throughout the pandemic, teens have been a constant focus for mental health professionals, as uncertainty and isolation led to increased depression and anxiety for young people. And experts say we won’t know the complete mental health implications of the pandemic on students for years to come. 

The ongoing crisis exacerbated mental health concerns, but even without a pandemic, young people make up a uniquely vulnerable population when it comes to mental health, , senior manager for youth and young adult initiatives for the (NAMI) says. “One of the main reasons we really want to reach more young people is that the earlier you can identify symptoms and warning signs of a mental health condition, the better the outcomes,” Rothman explains. 

Schools are a primary source for mental healthcare for young people. They’re hubs for information, resources, and counselors, as well as simply spaces to socialize, says Erica Riba, a licensed social worker and director of higher education and student engagement for the , a mental health nonprofit that partners with schools on mental health programming. 

“This is why it’s so important that schools are ready for this transition back, and putting a lot of things into place to make sure students are supported and feeling at ease when they come back, because there’s a lot of moving parts,” she continues.

To get a sense of what support systems would best address those many moving parts, we talked to high schoolers and college students — as well as mental health professionals — about what they want schools to do to get ready for a back-to-school season unlike any other. 

Keep things flexible

Franklin Zhu, a high schooler in New Jersey, says when schooling first went remote at the onset of the pandemic, his classmates initially had optimistic, if bittersweet, reactions: more free time; school in pajamas! As anyone who studied or worked remotely throughout the pandemic can attest, that feeling quickly soured. Turns out, it’s incredibly difficult to concentrate with an in the air and few of our usual markers of normalcy.

For students, Zhu says, that lack of daily structure had stark mental health implications. Personal and academic goals often . Now, as schools return to in-person learning, Zhu wants to see an emphasis on the types of planning and life skills that students may have forgotten when they were wearing PJs to calculus and scrolling through TikTok for hours on end at night. He wants to make sure schools don’t overlook the fundamentals: “How do you manage your time? How do you keep your life together? How do you prevent burnout?”

Mental health professionals want schools to see the value of these basic skills, too. “Treat everyone in the fall as a first-year student,” Riba says, and she means everyone. Actual first-year students, seniors, teachers, everyone needs “that ‘welcome back to campus’ community,” which should include re-hashing stuff like “here’s how you make friends; here are ways you can connect with various student groups and activities.” 

Similarly, students want things like homework help, opportunities for retakes and extensions when warranted, and a general lenience with respect to academic workloads to be seen as a form of mental health support this fall. Nic Oke, a high schooler in Maryland, says that teachers at his school largely didn’t shift expectations throughout the pandemic, but Oke saw the mental health benefits for friends at other schools with more accommodating workloads.

Celine Nguyễn, a college student in Texas and student ambassador for the Jed Foundation, appreciated when teachers waived certain tests during the mad scramble of spring 2020. She also appreciated optional check-ins via discussion posts from one professor, who would ask things like, “Share one thing you’re doing to keep yourself happy,” or “What’s one good thing that happened this week?” Because they were optional, Nguyễn notes it was “less stressful” for people who didn’t want to or couldn’t keep up, but it also allowed students to “share a lot of their help-seeking behaviors.”

Despite the lack of a modified workload, Oke took well to remote learning and has chosen to continue schooling from home even as his school reopened. He’s enjoyed the ability to take walks and other breaks at home for his mental health — and that’s another “back to the basics” fix students want to see next year. Particularly for younger students, Rothman says finding ways to work “coping skills into the day, being able to take short breaks, and [letting] the students do breathing exercises, do some yoga, get up and do some jumping jacks,” will be especially crucial for normalizing mental wellness. Students are used to that kind of flexibility now, and they want to see it replicated when they’re back on campus, too. 

Change the conversation

Unless you happen to be, oh, I don’t know, Jeff Bezos or another billionaire whose wealth rose precipitously throughout the pandemic, it’s safe to say you experienced some degree of palpable, unshakeable loss. Some students felt the universality of grief, loss, and led to more open conversations with peers about mental health — and they want to see that openness lead to a change in on-campus conversations about mental health this fall. 

Zhu and Nguyễn both note that despite the overall improvements to dialogues about mental health during the pandemic, they felt as if fellow students at their schools weren’t always utilizing campus mental health resources, both before and during the pandemic. Nguyễn adds that while her school does a good job of publicizing resources in general, friends at other colleges “go through their sophomore year not even knowing what types of services are provided by their schools.” The first step for schools, in her mind, is simply getting every student aware of available mental health resources. 

“How do you keep your life together? How do you prevent burnout?”

From there, Nguyễn and Zhu want to see schools focus on the overall stigma of pursuing those resources. 

“Sometimes students fear that if they go to get some mental support, it’ll maybe go on their record, or they’ll be sent to an institution,” Nguyễn says. “Some people have told me that prevents them from getting support just because they’re afraid of anything that would happen to them as a result.” 

Schools might take notes from the work of Dr. Charmain Jackman, a clinical psychologist and the dean of health and wellness at the Boston Arts Academy, a high school with a uniquely robust mental health support system. Thanks to a partnership with the Boston Public Health Commission, the Academy has a school nurse, social workers, and health educators all available for students’ mental health needs. 

The team goes out of their way to make themselves a presence on campus, Jackman says, which contributes to an overall environment of transparency around mental health. Before COVID, the team would regularly explain their services in classes and advisory groups, teach sexual health lessons plus depression and anxiety awareness modules, and attend school performances “so [students] saw us as part of their school community, like teachers.”

During the pandemic, though, the Academy’s once bustling stream of students slowed to a trickle as connection and privacy issues at home, as well as Zoom fatigue, deterred students from reaching out about virtual counseling sessions. To overcome this, Jackman’s team would periodically join advisory groups, small peer support groups with mentors, to conduct group exercises and open up that direct line of communication with students again. 

In those smaller breakout rooms, students started opening up. Jackman hopes other schools consider implementing a similar advisory model, which she saw as a godsend for newly camera-shy students during the pandemic.

“Treat everyone in the fall as a first-year student”

Jackman’s team also created a website for the department with pictures of each counselor, so students can recognize everyone, alongside crisis hotline numbers, local resources, and videos about mindfulness and breathing exercises. “We try to tackle it from all different angles,” Jackman says. “How are they going to get this resource if it’s late at night in their room?” 

While she acknowledges some students might retain that sense of stigma, “that culture of ‘talk to us, we’re going to support you and we have resources’…really, really opens students to just come in and see us.” Counselors welcome an open-door policy, so if students are having a hard time throughout the day, Jackman explains, “you can say to your teacher, ‘I need to talk to one of the counselors,’ and you go up and talk to a counselor. You do a breathing strategy, or just talk about what happened at lunch with a friend, and you process it, and then you can go back to class.” 

She wants to see other schools similarly demystify what it means to get mental health support. “When I’m in a session doing a breathing exercise with a student…or we’re just talking, I’m like, ‘You know this is counseling, right?’ And they’re like, ‘What?'” Jackman says. “Just creating moments, making the therapy process more real…” She adds that because her department is such a presence on campus, it’s been “really helpful in shifting what students think a counselor is or isn’t,” which is another lesson other schools might adopt. 

Acknowledge the disparities of the pandemic 

After a year of disproportionate tragedy and loss, students also want to see their schools reflect the unique mental health needs of different student populations. Due to , the pandemic has been unrelentingly unfair. It’s bred mental health concerns for students who are either directly impacted by systemic violence and discrimination, or unnerved by reading about it constantly, Jackman, who also founded , says. 

In addition to the daily trauma of institutional racism, the continual wound of witnessing the horrific deaths of George Floyd, , Jacob Blake, and other Black Americans at the hands of police throughout the pandemic highlighted the need for . Meanwhile, the did the same for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, while Jackman notes that have also seen as a throughout the pandemic. 

Oke, who serves on the national student council for , an LGBTQ youth advocacy organization, points to the “unique set of circumstances” for throughout the pandemic — from hostile home environments to cyberbullying — as another reason for the tailored support schools should be offering. He stresses the need this fall for “systems in place to address the unequal experiences that a lot of students have navigating schools.” 

That’s something Nguyễn also wants to see. “For me at least, it’s important that a counselor is able to relate to, or understand, my personal identity, my cultural identity,” Nguyễn says, adding that a survey distributed at her school found a majority of other students felt the same way. “I think especially from my own experience, I’m Vietnamese, and there is a big stigma among Vietnamese Americans regarding mental health,” she adds, explaining that family members have not always sought out the support they need due to stigma. 

“When I’m in a session doing a breathing exercise with a student…I’m like, ‘You know this is counseling, right?'” 

Along with a friend, Nguyễn has launched a public health initiative in her Texas community with the goal of increasing access to information about mental health resources and providers to the Vietnamese population in the area. “A lot of communities face these stigmas, and there’s often a lack of support to address these communities,” she says. Moving forward, she wants to see “an increase in access to linguistically or culturally competent mental health resources to these various communities” at schools. 

And in general, students like Oke want to see broader, systemic changes to the accessibility of mental health resources for young folks. “I definitely can get on my soapbox for a minute,” Oke says. “We need to have a more robust system in our schools, and really need to make more investments into getting kids access to mental health treatment.” 

“I think that any discussion revolving around mental health in schools must necessarily involve a discussion of policies to get more mental health professionals and interventions in the schools for kids, so that they’re not ending up having adverse mental health impacts due to the stress of school, or the stress of home that enters the school building, or really anything in between.” 

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. ET, or email . You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is . 

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