While young adults place a pronounced value on their mental health, many of them do not know how to access resources that can increase their ability to deal with stress, anxiety and other mental health issues, according to a new survey. One professor specializing in mental health in students maintained that properly investing in staff and teacher development could go a long way in offering students in school the means to help themselves.
“Mental health is something that is largely ignored, and it is hugely important,” Marc Zimmerman, a professor in Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said. “A lot of things happening in the classroom are happening because of what’s at home and in the communities.”
“Kind Communities - A Bridge to Youth Mental Wellness” was released Thursday by the Born This Way Foundation, which was founded by Lady Gaga in 2012 to assist young people in achieving mental and emotional well-being.
The survey cataloged a number of different issues as reported by 3,015 young people between the ages of 15 and 24, as well as 1,004 parents in an online survey, including how students view their own mental health —including how they strive to alleviate mental health issues — how peers and parents help and hinder mental health efforts, and what K-12 schools, colleges and workplaces can do to be healthier atmosphere for stressed young adults. More than half of students said mental health was important, but comparatively few sought assistance for their concerns.
“Despite prioritizing their mental health, young people are unaware whether they have access to many of the resources that would support their mental health or believe they do not have access to them,” the report read. “36% of high school students report that their schools do not cover mental health in any class at school, including 44% of rural students and 40% of low-income students (household income of less than $35,000).”
Surveyed students reported that they blossomed in high schools and colleges that were considered “kind.” The survey found that kind high schools had educators who greeted students when entering schools, offered classes that spoke about mental health, and consisted of peers who tried to make everyone feel included. 20% of high school students reported their schools had none of these attributes. “Kind” colleges were ones with free mental health counseling resources for students, resources that could offer stress relief such as yoga or meditation, and had an LGBTQIA center available for students to access on campus. 34% of students said their campus had all these attributes, but 15% reported their school had none.
Often, students in high school had difficulty accessing mental health treatment because there was not qualified staff in the facility or available to offer such treatment, Zimmerman, also the director of the University of Michigan's Prevention Research Center, said. Though schools often provided health clinics or medical staff, there is not always a social worker available on site. Mental health treatment in schools has received renewed attention from school and district leaders in recent months with the unfolding health care debate underway in Washington, D.C. Several superintendents across the country have publicly spoken out against the possibility that the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion could be lost in the event of a repeal; many districts often pay for the mental health care they do offer via federal dollars.
Zimmerman said districts could consider utilizing social workers on an on-call basis, having one certified mental health specialist cover a number of schools, or even an entire district. Schools could also invest in teacher development to help educators be able to see the signs of stress or suicidal thoughts in the classroom. Though a school or district may not be able to offer services themselves, they may be able to refer students to the right resource.
“They could be that early warning sign,” he said, stressing the need to have access to third-party mental health providers. “You help people identify a problem and then they have no place to go? You would definitely have to have that connection if you don’t actually provide the service in the schools.”
Zimmerman suggested that schools partner with organizations that specialize in helping people develop the skills to recognize the signs of someone facing mental health challenges. He cited the work done by Mental Health First Aid and Sandy Hook Promise, which was formed in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting in 2012 and specializes in diminishing feelings of alienation and mental health issues in schools. He said peer development, even if it was informal, and partnering with organizations like Sandy Hook Promise that offer their services for free, could help schools and districts start towards building a school culture with positive mental health, even if the money for staff additions is not readily available.
“School districts may have a social worker, but if there are people in the school who can refer students to the social worker, that’s helpful,” he said. “If they had a mechanism and a formal strategy for what to do in those situations that was consistent across the school, that’s not very expensive.”