There is a standardized measure for student mental and emotional health; thousands of school systems have used the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavioral Survey for decades. The data confirm what we are seeing. However, schools are not usually assessed based on this survey, and many school systems don’t share the often disturbing results with their communities. That can contribute to the lack of awareness of this issue.
In our experience, school administrators and teachers are aware of the student mental/emotional health epidemic, but it is rarely discussed because of the stigma that still surrounds these issues, the worry that schools are going to be blamed for the problem if they bring it up, and, most importantly, the apparent lack of broad solutions.
Having said that, no one is trying harder than educators to fix the problem. The big push for teaching SEL is one important approach. However, we must examine the root causes, because trying to change a behavior without identifying and addressing the root cause is often ineffective. We have found when looking at these problems from 10,000 feet, many behavioral issues are related. The same dynamics that are causing the student anxiety epidemic are also causing the vaping epidemic… and the suicide epidemic… and the phone/social media addiction epidemic… the sexting epidemic… and the failure-to-launch epidemic where young people, often into their 20s and 30s, are sitting in their parents’ basements playing video games all day.
It’s like an iceberg: All of the behaviors listed above are the visible part above the waterline. But the bigger part, the part under the water, is the enormous stress and anxiety caused by our rapidly changing culture that is driving all of these behaviors and more.
This student mental health crisis is no one’s fault. Again, it’s a cultural problem, and it has come on us so fast, no one was prepared for it. These cultural circumstances affect children directly, but also cause parents to parent differently, which often includes an adversarial relationship with the school.
Because of these cultural changes, there are emotional skills previous generations (we!) learned by osmosis that today’s children aren’t learning. Many parents are afraid to let their children out of their literal or virtual sight, so children’s independence has suffered. Everyone feels financially stressed, whether it is real or just perceived, and many children are pushed in school because college scholarships are necessary in order for college to be in reach, even for relatively affluent families. We have an entire generation of stressed and anxious kids, and adults are stressed, too. Naturally, this seems overwhelming and unfixable.
Thankfully, however, kids are hard-wired the same way they’ve always been. Some may think: " So all we have to do is develop communication and empathy skills with adults and the kids will get better." It sounds simple—but if only it were easy!
As we said, schools didn’t cause this problem. But the school is the only institution that can jumpstart the fix. The SEL movement already tries to address some of the emotional skills deficits in terms of behavior. But unless we first acknowledge the causes of the problem explicitly—to ourselves, and, more importantly, to students—and involve the parents, the SEL movement will not make the needed difference. And many children will continue to be so anxious they are unable to learn.