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Navigating Turbulence: Addressing Teen Mental Health in Schools

School counselors are on the front lines of this crisis, but they can’t do it alone. They need buy-in, support and collaboration from school administration and staff, parents, and community mental health professionals.

A growing number of students are struggling with depression, anxiety and self-harm. Small problems are turning into crises, and some teens are considering suicide.

Stress Management

Stress is a natural part of life, but it can also have a significant negative impact on your mental health. As a result, it’s important to know how to manage it.

Adolescents face a number of different challenges that can negatively affect their mental health, such as relationships with parents or siblings, strained peer-to-peer interactions, a changing social identity and increasing school demands. Adding to this, recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the social media phenomenon can increase their stress levels significantly.

As such, it’s crucial to teach your children and teenagers healthy coping mechanisms. This can be as simple as teaching them to do breathing exercises or muscle relaxation techniques. It could be more involved, such as a guided imagery exercise or mindfulness meditation. In fact, one study found that teen participants who took part in an 8-week stress management intervention showed greater resilience and adaptive coping skills and decreased maladaptive thinking and behaviours, including time spent on social media.

School Counseling

The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to rethink how they do business. Some districts, including Francis’s school district, have enhanced counseling services, implemented small-group therapy sessions and weaved mental health discussions into classroom lessons. Others have invested in community-based mental health programs and partnered with local organizations to bring those services into their schools.

Despite the improvements, many schools struggle with budget limitations, staffing issues and barriers to accessing mental health support in the community. And while recent state policies, like Oklahoma’s Counselor Corps, and federal initiatives, such as the American Rescue Plan Act, provide pathways to expanded school-based mental health services, the work is far from over.

Akins points to the continuing rise in mental health concerns among adolescents — which existed long before the pandemic — and says that partnerships between schools and community resources will help them address those problems. But she also warns that establishing helpful collaboration takes time, as counselors must balance their professional priorities and the demands of their students.

Academic Pressure

For many students, academic pressure is a significant factor in their mental health. It can come from many sources, including parental expectations, their own desire for perfection, sports commitments or a heavy class load. It can lead to an unhealthy focus on grades and test scores, which can negatively impact their overall well-being and cause anxiety or depression.

For college students who struggle with academic pressure, a healthier approach to studying and managing stress can help them feel more at ease and improve their mental health. Phillips recommends that young adults prioritize their mental health and seek out on-campus resources like peer tutoring, success workshops and counseling services to find a healthy balance with their studies.

The coronavirus pandemic has made some parents realize that they need to have open conversations with their teens about the effects of stress and pressure in school, whether it’s the pressure to perform or the stress of standardized testing. A recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that adolescents in high-achieving schools — who commonly grow up in affluent families — are at equal risk of developing behavioral and emotional problems as those living in poverty or foster care and those with incarcerated parents.

Emotional Support

When adolescents have poor mental health, it can impact their decision making, learning, and quality of life. It can also go hand in hand with other health and behavioral risks like drug use, violence, higher risk sexual behaviors leading to HIV and STDs, and unintended pregnancy.

Emotional support can buffer negative mental health outcomes. In fact, research shows that a sense of being cared for and supported is one of the protective factors that reduces teen health risks like depression and suicidal thoughts.

Schools can help by integrating mental health into curricula, training teachers and staff to identify students in need of support, and providing resources for referrals. Parents can encourage their teens to seek mental health help by opening the door to discussion, modeling healthy coping mechanisms, and supporting their children as they navigate their own challenges.