Tackling the Youth Mental Health Crisis Head-On – EdSurge News


Sobering statistics about a growing youth mental health crisis have become frequent headlines.

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that as of 2021, more than a third of high school students, including nearly three out of five teenage girls, had lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness. In a 2022 survey conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences, principals of more than two-thirds of public schools reported an increase in the number of students seeking mental health services after the pandemic, and nearly half of them said they could not effectively provide mental health services to all students in need.

Mental health is a vital public health issue. These statistics and the children behind them provide a clear call to action to prioritize prevention. Rather than intervening only when a student is in pain, we need to take a preventative approach to mental health.

Think of it this way: We don’t put a new driver behind the wheel of a car and assume that seat belts and airbags will keep them safe. While both can offer protection, we prepare new drivers by teaching them the rules of the road and equipping them with the skills to drive safely. Likewise, we need to prepare children to handle distress and equip them with the coping skills to respond when adversity arises.


Most mental health problems don’t arise because of a sudden underlying biological change; rather, there are risk and protective factors that promote or hinder development and impact the risk of developing mental health conditions. And every young person deserves access to preventive tools that can help them recognize and manage mental health risks and address common obstacles they face in life.

Since schools are where young people spend most of their days, they are important places to develop these kinds of skills. Teachers do not need to become therapists, but they do need to be trained to teach and model skills and strategies that help students overcome the academic, social and emotional challenges inherent in school. To do this effectively, they need access to evidence-based programs that support social and emotional development, professional learning opportunities related to student mental health, and school leaders who prioritize youth well-being.

The good news is that there is a lot of evidence on the practices and curriculum that can help young people learn coping skills and other preventative strategies, and many of the options are affordable and can be implemented in schools. Mental health literacy, for example, a framework that conceptualizes recognition, knowledge and attitudes about mental health, can help school staff and students achieve and maintain positive mental health, understand and identify illness mentally and seek help if needed. Studies have shown that mental health literacy programs can improve recognition, management and prevention of mental health problems and can reduce stigma around mental illness and treatment in school communities.

Similarly, incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into schools can help young people create multiple protective factors that can act as a shield against mental health challenges, including building positive relationships, regulating emotions, and troubleshooting. Hundreds of independent studies have found that students who participate in evidence-based SEL programs in school experience less emotional distress and behavior problems. Research also indicates that SEL helps young people better manage short-term symptoms related to anxiety and depression, and studies have shown that SEL creates a healthy school climate that improves students’ sense of emotional security and belonging. This is crucial for young people right now.

Well-being and academic achievement are closely intertwined. Students have difficulty learning if they have trouble concentrating, coping, or connecting with their peers and teachers. It is also clear that teachers who take the time to build relationships with students are more likely to spot early signs of concern and engage students in productive learning and, if necessary, refer them to the appropriate mental health services.

This does not mean that we should confuse promoting mental well-being with treating mental illness. The intention of teaching SEL and mental health literacy in schools is not to treat or diagnose mental health conditions. Prioritizing these areas of learning does not replace the role of mental health workers or detract from the importance of therapeutic responses for children who need them.

An effective public health approach to the youth mental health crisis requires equipping school communities with prevention AND intervention strategies so that all students are supported and protected.


This is a crucial time for young people and there is no one quick fix to the crisis. But it is clear that we need to rethink how we address the multi-layered challenges facing our youth and prioritize the well-being of every one of our nation’s children.

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