Forbes Books Author
Sep 13, 2022,03:59pm EDT
In a previous blog on my website written for Radicle Health, I discussed the broad mental health issues facing students today in our schools and on-campuses across the country. The focus was primarily on current response procedures, and what certain schools and states are doing to implement more nuanced support systems for student mental health crises. As we dig a bit deeper, we find that our ongoing mental health epidemic is not evenly distributed among students.
While mental health issues in young people have spiked since the pandemic, the current landscape is truly a minefield for young women, Black and Latinx youth, and those with sexual identity issues. Marginalized groups are suffering now like never before with their emotional and behavioral health.
An Alarming Increase in Suicide Risk
The numbers suggest a new tsunami of pain and suffering across the country. Three quarters of college students reported enduring moderate or severe psychological distress, according to the American College Health Association’s fall 2021 National College Health Assessment. Rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation are even higher for students with sexual identity issues. A staggering 42% reported seriously considering suicide in 2020.
When nearly three of seven young people of any kind are thinking about suicide, that is a crisis. In one sense, it’s a shocking development, considering that our society has never been more accepting of teens and young adults with sexual identity issues. At the same time, it’s no surprise at all given the social isolation Covid imposed, combined with the health scare, recent racial and political tensions, the social pressures caused by online media and growing effects of climate change. It appears to be the greatest time in history to be young – and the worst.
Institutions that engage the mind must be alert to the emotional stressors that reduce cognitive ability. That puts schools on the front line of confronting this new crisis, especially as communities beyond the campus are so ill-equipped to do so.
Thoughtful Responses and Programs are Necessary
School districts and college campuses are working to address these emotional impacts as they provide education to parents’ most precious priority. They are employing several strategies to lower the temperature of psychological distress. Many school districts are leveraging social and emotional learning (SEL), which teaches managing emotions, developing healthy identities, feeling and showing empathy, and more. Research clearly demonstrates SEL “leads to beneficial outcomes related to social and emotional skills; attitudes about self, school, and civic engagement; social behaviors; conduct problems; emotional distress; and academic performance,” according to the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning.
Also on the prevention side, districts are establishing positive behavior intervention and supports, a combination proactive and reactive system of individualized prevention and interventions for at-risk students. Districts are also moving away from the punitive reaction model for wayward behavior to restorative discipline practices, which focuses on accountability over punishment. Districts are creating formal partnerships with community agencies and other organizations that can provide behavioral crisis support and establishing crisis-response teams inside the schools to address mental health issues. Federal funding that was part of the Covid-inspired CARES Act is fueling many of the new programs to support primary school students’ mental health.
On college campuses, mental health is on the administrative radar like never before. Campus counselors are having to update their skills to provide for gender non-conforming students and change some of their practices to account for a whole new category of patients. This includes significant changes, like building more single dorm rooms for non-binary students, and small ones, like asking for gender rather than sex on forms.
Minority Students are More Deeply Impacted
For minority students, the challenges are analogous, but different. Black and Latinx families were more likely to work on the front lines during the pandemic, unable to work from home and avoid contamination. As a result, they endured higher infection, hospitalization, and death rates from Covid, exacerbated by “racial battle fatigue” following the George Floyd killing that exposed old wounds about police brutality against Black Americans. It is perhaps not surprising that 67% of Black adults reported in a July 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association that their experiences with racism are a significant source of stress in their lives.
For schools, this may also require a new sensitivity to the special needs of minority students, says Dr. Zainab Okolo, a family therapist. “For students to feel like they’re a part of campus, they have to be willing in some ways to divorce themselves from their [home] culture,” she tells DiverseEducation.com. “For some students, the campus culture and their home culture are so alike, maybe both parents went to the school, and they were born there, that there’s no divorcing. But for some students — students of color, first-generation students — they almost have to betray themselves to fit in.”
Educational institutions that aim to serve diverse student populations are having to pivot with the times and accommodate the mental health issues facing many minority student groups who have suffered because of, and since, Covid. Even if Covid recedes into the background, it is unlikely the emotional wellness of student populations will. The critical concern now is whether the efforts being made by institutions to address emotional wellness among students will persist as well.