The Rising Student Mental Health Challenge: How Educators Can Respond

David Farbman, Senior Director of Education

Supporting Our Students Through Proactive Partnership

Outreached handA major study from Columbia University found that the incidence of depression grew significantly in the U.S. from 2005 to 2015. The rise was most rapid among those ages 12 to 17, increasing from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 12.7 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, data collected from the National Survey of Children’s Health for ages 6 to 17 noted a 20 percent increase in anxiety diagnoses between 2007 and 2012. In attempting to determine a cause for this dramatic increase in children suffering mental health disorders, experts point to the role of social media, the pervasiveness of school shootings and other public episodes of violence and to pressures placed on children to meet high expectations.

As educators, we don’t need to see the national statistics to grasp the scope of the epidemic. Every day we see more and more of our children and teens coping with clinical depression and with an array of anxiety-based challenges—from ADHD to anorexia to panic disorders. Even beyond those with a specific identified problem, the prevalence of students manifesting unhealthy or anti-social behaviors may seem more pronounced than ever.

So, what are educators to do? At Gateways, we believe that two fundamental principles should guide what schools put in place to better support students’ social-emotional and mental health needs.

1. As much as possible, schools need to be proactive in identifying and addressing students’ challenges, rather than being forced into reacting to unacceptable behavior or crises. Being proactive means setting up clear, well-developed systems that can prevent problems before they arise and can focus educator and specialist interventions on managing any problems that do emerge. This approach is called a Multi-Tiered System of Support and is explained well in this video from Edutopia.

2. Schools can look to partner with others. Mental health challenges are complex and multi-causal. It is often too much for one set of individuals in a school to provide adequate support to students who are struggling to learn. Administrators, specialists and faculty should work with mental health providers, with other schools, with educational support organizations and, most importantly, with parents and families to get students the support they need.

Additionally, and most essential of all, and in some contrast to what I’ve described above, we can support our students by orienting our motivation toward healthy living and development, rather than focusing on “fixing problems.” Our goal is to help our children grow into productive and well-adjusted adults. As educators we can model what it means to “live as a mensch”—caring for those around us and aspiring always to be even better people in the process.

At Gateways, we are putting these principles into action by working with Boston-area schools to support their proactive efforts to foster a culture of caring and, when necessary, provide the direct interventions that will help students overcome psychological angst and enable them to thrive in educational settings. And we look forward to continuing to elevate schools’ capacity to enable the next generation of Jews to become strong and resilient.

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