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 this is great, but mental health awareness needs to be front and center 365 days per year, 24/7. Mental health needs remain vastly underserved for everyone in this country, including the rapidly escalating mental health emergency in children and adolescents. We can’t leave this discussion to one month a year.
Young people are experiencing a mental health emergency
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Young people’s mental health has been in decline for many years—predating this pandemic, which has only made things worse. Our understanding of what has led to this health emergency will become clearer over time based on research and analyses. But we can’t wait to take action. Too many children’s lives suffer due to mental illness—and we have at least some notion of things we can do. Many intersecting challenges are part of this, including substance use, climate change, racial injustice, income inequality, and gun violence.
Current educational systems don’t support kids’ mental health
In my mind, we are missing a major contributor to mental health problems in kids if we don’t look at the current state of our educational system. While it works for many and is full of dedicated, hardworking individuals, the evolution of this system over the last few decades has created deep vulnerabilities for the mental health of our children.
Educators and legislators have some awareness of these problems and are working to improve mental health awareness in school. They have integrated mental health awareness into teaching, with platforms such as SEL Social Emotional Learning. Some states, like New York, have mandated mental health curriculum in K-12 and mental health awareness policies in every school.
These are a start but they are inadequate. They don’t touch on the creep of excessive and unmanageable demands that have become central to how we educate our kids. 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 kids are burnt out
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As a child psychiatrist—and a parent of two grown children—I think that a fundamental cause of much of our students’ anxiety and depression is burnout. Yes, our kids are burnt out. Our educational systems place unreasonable and contradictory expectations on children and families without providing anywhere near the resources needed to manage those expectations.
A chief example is homework. Homework demands are often excessive—expecting kids to just keep working after long days in school, and parents to police their children’s homework after long days at work. Never mind trying to feed everyone and unwind before bed.
And the need for kids and families to have genuine downtime outside of school, physically and mentally, carries almost no weight in this discussion. Homework comes first. If you want downtime, just get the work done, and then you can relax. Kids and families are terrified of bad grades if the homework isn’t done, but this means kids and parents stay up too late.
And yet, with all of this, students are blamed when they struggle or fail. Kids are told to just work harder, obey the teacher, do what they are told, practice yoga or breathing skills, or be more efficient in how they do their work at home. It’s their fault if they don’t “just do it.” And parents get blamed too—for not making sure their kids get all the homework done, every night. No matter what else is happening.
Our families are burnt out
Keeping up with all of these expectations—and getting blamed when kids struggle—sucks the life out of families. Arguments, meltdowns, and homework despair yield constant feelings of guilt and inadequacy. It’s never enough.
Teachers also get caught in this system, with testing demands, curriculum benchmarks, disrespect from the community, and woefully inadequate compensation to manage all of this.
And there are way more demands beyond schoolwork. We expect kids to participate in sports or clubs, the arts, or theater. But we also mandate that those activities never interfere with studies. And we tell kids to go to bed on time—get enough sleep—even if all those expectations mean this is physically, emotionally, and cognitively impossible. Just put away the screens—that will solve the problem. And when kids are sleep-deprived, they are reprimanded for being sleepy, inattentive, or cranky.
The list of contradictory and impossible demands goes on—such as giving no snacks even if a kid is hungry and can’t pay attention (it’s “their fault”). Reducing recess times, but then withholding even that small break for kids to finish work or be consequenced for something. Telling kids to keep moving and stay healthy, but having 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 an upstander” when adults don’t actually change the culture—especially in the lunchroom, on the playground, or on the bus, when supervision is much less than in the classroom.
Burnout and despair magnify injustices and inequity
And while these systemic problems affect all children, the destructive effects fall most heavily on Black, Latinx, indigenous kids, poor, differently sized, LGBTQIA, and disabled kids. Baseline inequities mean systemic problems like those above will cut into already deeply unfair and biased foundations in education.
Some actionable changes to take right now
In seeking to create true change and prevent burnout and mental health risks for all the stakeholders, but especially students, I want to talk about some bigger systemic ideas—radical notions to consider—all based on research. These are in addition to other efforts to include mental health awareness into everyday teaching and curriculum and school culture, but are much more action-oriented and would be heavier lifts for many reasons.
- No homework until late middle school/high school—and then no more than two hours per night.
- Preschool and kinder return to primarily play- and activity-based models.
- Recess at least one hour per day in elementary and middle school—and never withheld.
- School starts later—especially in middle and high school.
- Creating mental health/trauma-aware classrooms, which includes strategies such as:
Opportunities to request a break or to rest if needed
Opportunities to move around when needed
Curiosity, rather than punishment, when students struggle with getting work done
Snacks and drinks when needed
Bathroom breaks when needed
Classroom “behavioral” plans that don’t publicly shame or take away earned rewards
Awareness that a child’s mental health is on par with task completion
If I could emphasize one thing to all of 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, health, and mental health needs that need to be addressed before a child can participate effectively in learning. This is the core 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 nurses, along with 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 kids, adding to the burden they are bearing in an already damaging system—not just from being out of school but from the wide-ranging effects of living through a pandemic, including getting sick themselves, seeing loved ones get sick, losing a family member, and the effects of long COVID on kids and the adults in their lives. And while we try to support kids and families with strategies and support for their own survival, until the bigger systemic issues change, this trauma won’t heal.
Big ideas will spark debate and conversation
I know many people will disagree with me. I am speaking from the mental health angle, not as a professional educator. But that is the fundamental schism here. For schools, task completion is the primary goal. From the psychiatrist’s point of view, developmental, health, and mental health needs are at least as important as, and sometimes more important than, completing an assignment.
Let’s stop blaming kids for their struggles and look at the systemic problems facing kids, families, and teachers every day. Let’s not burn kids out on learning and on themselves before they graduate high school. Let’s keep our kids mentally and physically healthy by matching our actions to our words.