A new analysis identifies key areas where mental health issues are on the rise--and offers suggestions to help students feel supported, like this brain and stethoscope.

Can data help schools address student mental health issues?

A new analysis identifies key areas where mental health issues are on the rise--and offers suggestions to help students feel supported

Students in classrooms across the nation struggle with anxiety and thoughts of suicide, and with mental health issues on the rise, schools need better data to help students learn coping strategies.

A report from YouthTruth, which conducts student and stakeholder feedback surveys for school improvement, shows that 1 in 7 students have seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months. While 68 percent of students in that report say they have coping strategies to help them manage stress or emotional problems, they also say mental health programs and services, along with strong relationships with the adults in school, can help their emotional and mental health.

YouthTruth analyzed data from more than 70,000 students in grades 5-12. The data was gathered between 2012-2019 through anonymous YouthTruth surveys, administered in partnership with public schools in 18 states.

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“Even the best educators are hard-pressed to know to what extent and in what ways students are struggling with their mental health” says Jen Wilka, executive director for YouthTruth. “While schools can’t bear this alone, they are a key piece of the puzzle of supporting students in today’s complex world, and as our data shows, the relationships and supports that schools provide really matter. When it comes to topics of emotional and mental health that can be hard to talk about, getting anonymous survey data about the school experience, student and staff relationships at school, and environmental supports is more important than ever. Schools have a crucial opportunity to hear directly from students about their experiences and intervene before it’s too late.”

The four main findings, explored at length in the report, are:

1. Programs and services in school matter, especially for vulnerable populations.

For instance, special education students report experiencing more thoughts of suicide than their peers–22 percent compared to 14 percent. However, these students feel more positively than general education students do about the availability of an adult in school who they can talk to when they are feeling upset, stressed, or having problems (53 percent compared to 45 percent).

2. Middle school students report more positive experiences with their emotional and mental health than do high school students.

Twenty-eight percent of middle school students say that they have felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more that they stopped doing some usual activities in the last 12 months, while a larger proportion of high school students — 35 percent — say the same. When it comes to navigating resources when they need help, middle school students feel more positively than do high school students.

3. A greater proportion of students who identify in a way other than male or female report thoughts about suicide.

Twenty-one percent of students who identify as a gender other than male or female say that they have seriously considered attempting suicide in the last 12 months. This is compared to 17 percent of female students and 11 percent of male students.

4. Female students are twice as likely to report experiencing prolonged sadness or hopelessness.

Prior research also shows that adult women are more at risk for severe depression and self-harm. Researchers have also explored the role of social media, and how the increased stress and pressure to succeed, plays into the emotional and mental well-being of school-aged girls.

When leaders and staff at Corvallis School District in Oregon got their YouthTruth student feedback results back, they were able to identify that over-commitment to extracurricular activities was causing anxiety in students.

“It’s really important that we know that and can now have that conversation with the community,” says Superintendent Ryan Noss. Based on their survey results, Corvallis invested in students’ mental health by hiring full-time therapists to increase the availability of trained staff and heightened the quantity and reach of messaging about available services that are available to students. The district will continue to track progress with annual anonymous surveys.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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