Addiction. Anxiety. Bullying. Depression. Eating disorder. Marginalization. Self-harm. Suicide. Trauma. Violence. Lives as teenagers are not always youthful nor blithe, and oftentimes life challenges are entangled with emotions and mental health.
Youths’ cryptic codes of expression of these emotions, as well as the medium, have changed with the advance of technology. On social media platforms like TikTok, some seemingly common phrases like “I had pasta tonight” or “I finished my shampoo and conditioner at the same time” can in fact convey youths’ depressive and suicidal thoughts through the use of code. Statements like these are indicative of the normalization of a mental health pandemic for the younger generation.
Even before COVID-19, one in five youths had a mental health condition at any given time. Experts worry that the school closures and disrupted social routines would exacerbate children and adolescents’ mental health. Supporting these concerns, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported increased mental health-related emergency department visits in this age group.
School-based Mental Health Services
School-based mental health services could play a crucial role in addressing these rising mental health concerns and unmet needs among children and youths. Numerous studies identify family and school as the most impactful social networks that could nurture the younger population’s mental health.
Schools, especially, can amplify the impact of their interventions by engaging with multiple levels of the social environment – students themselves, their peers, parents, and teachers. Screening, prevention and promotion, student and family engagement, coaching, and consultation provided by school psychologists, social workers, or trained teachers have shown to decrease symptoms of mental disorders and increase students’ emotional well-being.
Besides, while only 16% of all children receive mental health services, 70-80% do so in a school setting. This suggests school-based mental health services are not only effective but also feasible and well-utilized by students.
Effectiveness, feasibility, and high demand. All evidence points to the significant potential for school-based mental health services to address the mental health crisis among children and adolescents and warrant rapid adaptation and implementation in all States and schools.
Luckily, there has been an increase in governmental and public support for school-based mental health services. New York, Virginia, and Florida are the first three states to mandate mental health education as a part of their public K-12 health curriculum.
Senate and House bills are also currently under review to expand State Educational Agencies’ capacity to support school-based mental health services, including outreach, education, screening, and treatment. Mental health advocacy organizations, such as Mental Health America and National Alliance on Mental Illnesses, endorse these policies, calling for all students’ mental health care.
There’s More to Do
However, despite the promising evidence and progress, implementing school-based services alone may not guarantee access to care for everyone. Limited accessibility is a barrier we need to break for better results.
Racially marginalized youths already have a slightly higher prevalence of mental health disorders than non-Latinx White adolescents and are shown to utilize mental health services at lower rates. Unfortunately, such underutilization of resources among racial minority youths persists even for school-based services. Similar trends exist with many other socially marginalized youths, such as homeless, sexual minorities, and/or in poverty.
The pandemic and the coronavirus might also limit the accessibility and availability of in-person care, limiting service options for some students. Given the demonstrated benefits and unmet needs, barriers to utilization – including stigma, discrimination and prejudice, opportunity costs, service availability, and coronavirus infection risks – must be identified to eliminate mental health disparities.
A Clear Path
Despite the lack of utilization by some, school-based interventions have effectively improved the health and educational outcomes of socially vulnerable students among those who receive and follow through with these services. Hence, while improvements and augmentations are certainly underway, school-based interventions should be a continuous strategy in combating mental health issues among youth.
Children and adolescents are the future of our world, but half of all mental health conditions develop by age 14. Considering that developing mental disorders in early life is associated with poor educational and occupational attainments, lower-income, and health outcomes, the high mental distress and unmet needs in this age group could pose grave long-term consequences.
More than ever, we must commit our attention, support, and investment in the well-being of all children and teens, as they navigate through their dynamic life phase as well as this unprecedented time of the global crisis. No one should suffer alone, crying out for help in discrete codes. We must listen and act now.