Since I began teaching more than 20 years ago, I have seen three seismic changes in education. Early this century, the passage of No Child Left Behind ushered in both standardized testing and the role of analytics in education. Seven years ago, the shooting in Newtown, Conn., led to a series of wholesale changes in school security. And over the past decade, the increase in mental health struggles among our students has become a constant presence in our schools.
The movements toward data analysis and school security are established components of education today, and many schools have spent years fine-tuning the ways they address these issues. As for mental health, many schools are still grappling with how to address the increased numbers of students in need. In the past few years, many schools have emphasized student wellness as well as Social and Emotional Learning, and schools also have deepened their partnerships with outside agencies that focus on mental health. Students have spoken up publicly about their struggles, and teachers have taken leadership roles in helping students who are struggling with stress.
The causes of this trend are still up for debate. In her book iGen, psychologist Jean Twenge draws a correlation between tween and teen smartphone use and adolescent mental health struggles. Many others have agreed with this theory, but other studies have refuted this connection between device use and anxiety or depression. Some point to the pressure of today’s college admissions, and the many advanced courses and extracurriculars that students are taking to impress universities. But there are many students struggling with mental health who are not taking advanced courses. Mental health illnesses also are less stigmatized today, leading to the possibility that more students are admitting their struggles without fear of being ostracized.
In all likelihood, there are multiple reasons for this significant increase. In the meantime, schools are working diligently to address the struggles our students bring with them to the classrooms and hallways. I see this every day in my life as an educator, and also in my life as a parent. I work with students and parents to address issues of stress, anxiety and depression, and then come home to a teen who is struggling each day with those issues. My wife and I communicate our daughter’s struggles to the school, just as many parents do with me. We also support her at home and connect with outside therapy and agencies, just as many other parents do. We have made mental-health support a primary part of what we want in the college she attends. And we try very hard to help her take life one day at a time.
As a parent, it’s enough to wear you down some days. I carry this experience with me into school, reminding myself that those parents and students with stories similar to my family’s are likely doing the best they can. As parents and educators, we don’t yet have clear-cut solutions to the mental-health struggles of teens. But we know that the one thing we can’t do is give up.