May is Mental Health Awareness Month – and as I write this it’s the last day of May 2022. Having a month to focus on that is great, but mental health awareness needs to be front and center 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Mental health needs remain largely unmet for everyone in this country, including the rapidly worsening mental health emergency among children and adolescents. We cannot leave this discussion to a month a year.
Young people are experiencing a mental health emergency
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Youth mental health is on the decline for many years, before this pandemic, which only made things worse. Our understanding of what led to this health emergency will become clearer over time based on research and analysis. But we are eager to act. Too many children’s lives are suffering because of mental illness – and at least we have an idea of what we can do. Many intersecting challenges are part of this, including substance use, climate change, racial injustice, income inequality, and gun violence.
Current education systems are not supporting children’s mental health
In my mind, we are missing a major contributor to mental health issues in children if we don’t look at the current state of our education system. While it works for many and is full of dedicated and hardworking people, the evolution of this system over the past decades has created profound vulnerabilities for the mental health of our children.
Educators and legislators have some awareness of these issues and are working to improve mental health awareness in schools. They have integrated mental health awareness into teaching, with platforms such as SEL Social Emotional Learning. Some states, like New York, have mandated a K-12 mental health curriculum and mental health awareness policies in every school.
These are a start but they are insufficient. They don’t touch the creep of excessive and unmanageable demands that have become central to how we raise our children. My observation, after many years of consulting for schools and districts, and reviewing the scientific literature, is that these demands create toxic stress that harms many children.
Our children are exhausted
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As a child psychiatrist and parent of two adult children, I believe that burnout is one of the root causes of our students’ anxiety and depression. Yes, our children are exhausted. Our education systems place unreasonable and conflicting expectations on children and families without providing them with the resources to manage those expectations.
A prime example is homework. Homework demands are often excessive – children are expected to continue working after long days at school and parents are expected to control their children’s homework after long days at work. Never mind trying to feed everyone and relax before bed.
And the need for children and families to have real downtime outside of school, physically and mentally, carries almost no weight in this discussion. Homework comes first. If you want some downtime, just do the work, then you can relax. Kids and families fear bad grades if homework isn’t done, but that means kids and parents stay up too late.
And yet, with all of this, students are blamed when they struggle or fail. Children are told to simply work harder, obey the teacher, do as they are told, practice yoga or breathing, or be more efficient in the way they do their jobs at home. the House. It’s their fault if they don’t “do it”. And parents are also blamed for not making sure their children do all their homework, every night. It doesn’t matter what else happens.
Our families are exhausted
Meeting all of these expectations – and taking the blame when children struggle – sucks the lives of families. Arguments, meltdowns, and homework despair produce constant feelings of guilt and inadequacy. It’s never enough.
Teachers are also caught up in this system, with testing requirements, curriculum benchmarks, lack of respect from the community, and woefully inadequate compensation to manage it all.
And there are many more demands beyond schoolwork. We expect children to participate in sports or clubs, the arts or theatre. But we also demand that these activities never interfere with studies. And we tell kids to go to bed on time – to get enough sleep – even though all those expectations mean it’s physically, emotionally, and cognitively impossible. Just put the screens away, it will solve the problem. And when children are sleep deprived, they are reprimanded for being sleepy, inattentive, or grumpy.
The list of conflicting and impossible requests goes on, such as not giving snacks even if a child is hungry and can’t pay attention (it’s “their fault”). Reduce playtime, but then hold back even that little break for kids to finish their work or get punished for something. Tell children to keep moving and stay healthy, but have them sit in a chair most of the day, with almost no other physical activity. Saying they should think critically but never question authority or rules. Putting up “No Bullying” signs and saying “learn to be honest” when adults aren’t actually changing the culture, especially in the lunchroom, playground, or on the bus when supervision is much less than in class.
Burnout and despair amplify injustice and inequality
And while these systemic issues affect all children, the destructive effects mostly affect Black, Latinx, Indigenous, poor, different height, LGBTQIA, and disabled children. Basic inequalities mean that systemic issues like the ones above will undermine the already deeply unjust and biased foundations of education.
Some actionable changes to make now
In seeking to create real change and prevent burnout and mental health risks for all stakeholders, but especially students, I want to talk about some larger systemic ideas – radical notions to consider – all based on research. These are in addition to other efforts to include mental health awareness in daily teaching, curriculum and school culture, but are much more action-oriented and would be heavier for many reasons. .
- No homework until end of middle/high school— and no more than two hours a night.
- Back to preschool and kindergarten models primarily based on play and activity.
- Rest at least an hour a day in elementary and middle school – and never retained.
- School starts later—especially in middle school and high school.
- Create mental health/trauma aware classroomswhich includes strategies such as:
Possibilities to request a break or rest if necessary
Ability to travel if needed
Curiosity, rather than punishment, when students struggle with their work
Snacks and drinks as needed
Toilet breaks when needed
Classroom “behavioural” plans that do not publicly shame or take away earned rewards
Awareness that a child’s mental health is on par with task completion
If I could point out one thing to all the amazing teachers, educators, and parents, it would be that many children’s responses and behaviors that we typically interpret as disrespect or opposition are actually the result of developmental needs, health and mental health issues that need to be addressed before a child can participate effectively in learning. This is the heart of a practice called Trauma-Informed Teaching and it is a powerful shift in mindset.
- Much more funding for school psychologists, social workers and school nursesas well as ongoing and robust professional development in mental health for teachers and paraprofessionals.
And we must highlight and address the trauma that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on children, adding to the burden they carry in an already damaging system – not only from being out of school, but also from the large-scale effects of living during a pandemic, including falling ill themselves, seeing loved ones get sick, losing a family member, and the effects of the long COVID on the children and adults in their lives. And while we try to support children and families with strategies and support for their own survival, until the larger systemic issues change, this trauma will not heal.
Big ideas will spark debates and conversations
I know a lot of people will disagree with me. I speak from a mental health perspective, not as a professional educator. But that’s the fundamental schism here. For schools, task completion is the primary goal. From the perspective of the psychiatrist, developmental, health, and mental health needs are at least as important, and sometimes more important, than fulfilling a mission.
Let’s stop blaming children for their difficulties and look at the systemic issues facing children, families and teachers every day. Let’s not exhaust the kids on learning and on themselves before they graduate from high school. Let’s keep our children mentally and physically healthy by matching our actions to our words.