Every year more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States–that breaks down to 7,000 students every day. Leaving high school has major implications for the rest of a student’s life, including considerably higher rates of unemployment, poverty, depression, chronic physical and mental illness, incarceration, and even a shorter life span.
Among the students who do not complete high school, over 20 percent did so because of early onset psychiatric disorders, with mood disorders being the most common.
This is extremely concerning, as the U.S. has recently experienced significant increases in struggles with youth mental health. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, along with the Surgeon General issuing a national advisory in the wake of alarming increases in the prevalence of mental health challenges.
There have been several catalysts to these growing numbers, namely the COVID-19 pandemic that greatly exacerbated challenges with adolescent mental health. According to new data, more than a third (37 percent) of high school students reported they are experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
Additionally, we’ve also seen a huge uptick in mental health issues with cell phones and social media becoming mainstream among our nation’s youth. Multiple studies have found a strong link between social media use and an increased risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness, social withdrawal, and physical violence–all factors that can contribute to poor academic achievement and ultimately students leaving high school for good.
Mental health issues affect students from all socio-economic backgrounds, however, students that the system has failed to reach, including those impoverished and children of color, are the most impacted. This is due to myriad factors involving systemic issues, including: treatment cost barriers, racial barriers, difficulty navigating complex health care and insurance systems, parents’ inability to take time off work to attend in-person therapy sessions, stigmas associated with seeking mental health services, a shortage of mental health professionals resulting in long wait times for appointments, and misdiagnosing mental health issues as behavioral issues.
Finding ways to connect with all students requires reimagining our current (and arguably outdated) model, but it’s a challenge we can meet.
Here are strategies I have found to be effective::
- Harness the power of peer pressure for positive outcomes by launching a peer ambassador program. Provide a platform to empower students to act as champions, advocates, and peer facilitators for mental health support. Normalize and destigmatize the need to seek preventative measures and mental health support by making it a part of the everyday conversation at school.
- Explore alternative, and relevant, channels for parent and student communication: Technology has changed the way students speak to each other, and how they want to be spoken to. Consider text messages and email, or develop a social media campaign about the importance of mental health awareness. Students themselves are also valuable resources to help you to discover ways to effectively connect and interact with the student body.
- Offer on-demand mental health services to all students: Telehealth services extend school health offices’ reach by expanding the pool of providers and allowing more students to be seen in shorter amounts of time. This reduces wait times by eliminating gaps in time or physical distance barriers, enabling licensed therapists to become an extension of the existing school-based team, while providing immediate care to students.
As with any health-related issue, early intervention and prevention are the keys to creating positive outcomes for youth. Encouraging students to seek support, and removing stigma and barriers to receiving that support, is crucial for better results, including graduation rates. Developing a positive connection and trust, and finding value in seeking mental health support, has remarkable lifelong implications–creating a happier and more well-balanced society as a whole.