There’s been a lot of talk about youth mental health during the pandemic, including a number of prominent voices raising the alarm about this crisis. There have been almost as many voices suggesting that ending things like lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates, and just getting “back to normal” will fix this mental health crisis.
I am not one of those voices.
Now let me be clear, I’m not saying that the pandemic hasn’t played a number on mental health for all of us, it clearly has. But, the crisis in mental health for everyone, but especially young people, existed long before COVID-19.
Let me share an article with you:
Specifically, I want you to pay attention to this passage:
The crisis isn’t new. In 2019, 1 in 3 high schoolers reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40% increase from 2009. About 7.7 million young people in the U.S. experience a mental health condition annually. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24.
The article then goes on to talk about the next bump in those numbers between 2019 and 2020, thanks to a pandemic and everything else going on in the world, but the crisis was raging long before that was a concern, and coming out of a pandemic is not going to change the situation for most of them.
What the article is really focused on though, is the failure to implement programs and dedicate resources that could be used to help young people. They spend most of their days in school, and many of the mental health issues show up in school and interfere with their ability to succeed in school. We weren’t doing enough for kids in 2019 and we sure as hell aren’t doing enough now. We could end the pandemic tomorrow and we still won’t be doing enough.
Part of the problem is resources. There’s simply no money. When teachers have to go buy their own classroom supplies, where do we think money is going to magically appear for mental health resources? Another part of the problem is stigma. There’s the obvious stigma of being the kid getting help for their mental health, but increasingly there is also the stigma of parents who don’t want schools trying to support the mental health of kids. They see it as a private, family matter, not least because they don’t want it out that their little kid might be struggling with their mental health. So they actually fight against mental health programs in schools.
Add it all together and you get a “report card” showing that there are no states in the US where schools are doing anywhere near what is adequate for student mental health.
Fixing this is going to require a whole lot more than ending mask mandates and quarantines. Frankly, until we all get on the same page about the importance of early mental health intervention and the role schools can play in that, it’s not going to get fixed. We aren’t even at that point yet.