3 Things Schools Can Do to Help Ease the Student Mental Health Crisis

Stopol: A 'we are crew, not passengers' approach builds community and lets students see that they can achieve more when sharing each other’s success.

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With two recent advisory warnings, the U.S. surgeon general issued a powerful one-two jolt to the nation’s consciousness about the severity of the adolescent mental health crisis and the role social media may be playing in it. The warnings are peppered with sobering statistics that illuminate the depth of this emergency. They show, for example, that over a 10-year period, there have been 60% increases in: adolescents reporting major depressive episodes; those experiencing feelings of sadness and hopelessness: and, most alarmingly, suicide rates. Those statistics point to what can only be called an epidemic of loneliness, depression and disconnectedness that is gripping the country’s young people.

The warnings also offer some potential remedies, including things schools and school districts can do to improve adolescent mental health, such as expanding social-emotional learning programs. But as helpful and perceptive as those ideas are, far too little attention is being given to the importance of transforming schools into places that actively combat social isolation by infusing into their cultures a sense of community through which everyone feels supported, looked after and cared for. My experience over more than three decades in education makes clear that when schools establish these kinds of environments, the mental health benefits to students are profound, with isolation and despair replaced by connection and positivity.

But developing and sustaining a genuine feeling of community doesn’t just happen. It needs to be carefully and deliberately cultivated, and it requires school leaders to make a fundamental choice as to what kind of experience they want their students to have. The stark polarity of this choice can be understood by invoking two nautical phrases: “every tub on its own bottom” versus “we are crew, not passengers.” The former, which describes the approach taken by many schools, emphasizes individual achievement and independence. The latter, being embraced by a growing number of schools, is grounded in the concepts of community and mutuality and interdependence, and assumes students can achieve more when they have a shared stake in one another’s success.

Putting a “we are crew, not passengers” ethos at the center of schools can drive and shape their efforts to imbue students with a sense of belonging and purpose by making them feel welcomed, valued and needed.

Three simple but critical steps are the keys to bringing this ethos to life.

First, schools need to create peer support structures like advisories or what we at NYC Outward Bound Schools and our partner organization, EL Education, call crew. Through these structures, small groups of 10 to 15 students meet regularly in an environment of trust and mutual respect, to talk with and listen to one another on a host of school-related and personal issues. Students thus see their peers not as rivals, but as allies who have their backs and are rooting for their success. This peer-to-peer support helps create a safe, nurturing space where all students, regardless of their background or circumstances, can let down their guard, find their own voices and feel free to be themselves.

Second, and relatedly, schools need to ensure that every student has at least one adult who is readily available and can provide support, advice and an empathetic ear — someone students know they can turn to and rely upon. In schools with advisories or crew, this will be the teacher adviser who serves as a facilitator, mentor and advocate. In schools that don’t have advisories or crews, it’s imperative to connect each student with an adult who has the time and training to play that kind of meaningful role. While it might be tempting to assign this task to school guidance counselors, it requires far more intimacy and availability than most counselors, who are already overburdened with caseloads in the dozens, if not hundreds, are able to offer. 

Third, schools need to provide regular opportunities for students to serve their communities and one another. Service is a highly effective antidote to the atomizing influence of social media because it helps young people discover the satisfaction, and the feelings of self-worth and purpose, that come with shifting the focus to others and going beyond their personal needs and concerns. 

Addressing the nation’s youth mental health crisis will require a multi-pronged effort that goes well beyond these three steps and enlists many institutions besides schools. But don’t underestimate the impact schools can have when they create caring, supportive communities that are animated by the notion of “we are crew, not passengers.” Today more than ever, students need and deserve the sustenance, affirmation and love those communities provide.

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