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Shapiro: In His State of the Union Address, President Biden Called on All Americans to Step Up for Students. Here Are 3 Places to Start

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Two years into the pandemic, the student mental health crisis is finally getting the attention it deserves. On the biggest stage in politics, President Joe Biden used part of his State of the Union address to call on all Americans to step up to support students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Let’s take on mental health — especially among our children, whose lives and education have been turned upside down,” Biden said, adding later that “we can all play a part — sign up to be a tutor or a mentor.”

This call to action couldn’t come at a more urgent time. While it may take years to know the true toll of the pandemic on students’ mental health and well-being, the immediate impact is devastatingly clear: increased rates of depression, anxiety and isolation among young people, as well as a rise in mental health-related emergency room visits. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from January suggest “the mental health effects of the pandemic might be particularly high among adolescent girls.”

Confronting such a big challenge can feel daunting. While there’s no single solution, just having a stable and supportive relationship with an adult can make a big difference for students. Connecting every young person with a supportive adult is a critical first step in meeting these mental health and learning recovery challenges. 

Fortunately, there are actions everyone can take to support this work. Here are three ways individuals and schools can meet Biden’s challenge and provide kids with stable relationships and support:

Volunteer to be a mentor or tutor.

Implicit in Biden’s call to Americans is the acknowledgement that the responsibility to confront this challenge should not fall solely on teachers and school staff. Indeed, even as federal pandemic aid has helped schools hire more counselors and social workers, many schools are struggling to meet student’s mental health and learning needs.

That’s why it’s so important that Americans of all backgrounds step up to ensure every young person has a trusted ally in their corner by becoming a mentor or tutor.

With opportunities across the country, becoming a mentor or tutor has never been easier. Through the READY SET Campaign, an initiative launched last year to increase volunteer engagement with students and schools, volunteers can find mentoring, tutoring and AmeriCorps opportunities in their local area. There are even virtual mentoring opportunities, allowing mentors and students to connect despite geographic and other barriers.

Advocate for legislation to expand quality youth programs.

Relationship-centered recovery can require a policy change. One in three young people in the U.S. will reach the age of 19 without having a mentor outside their family. Federal legislation can help fill this need by providing funding to schools and community organizations to expand mentoring and tutoring programs. For example, the Foster Youth Mentoring Act would create a comprehensive federal grant program to provide essential support for this vulnerable population. 

You can view more legislation, see your representative’s voting record on these issues and contact them through Mentor’s Action Center.

Use COVID-19 relief funds to support relationship-centered schools. 

For district and school administrators, now is the time to leverage the historic investment in education included in the American Rescue Plan to foster connection in schools. In addition to investing in school-based mental health staff, partnerships with local community organizations can provide high-quality afterschool programs and mentoring and tutoring to students. 

Promising work is already happening in communities across the country. In Boston, for example, a partnership between local schools and nonprofit Literations connects older adult volunteers with elementary school students who need extra reading support. 

In closing his State of the Union address, Biden said, “We are the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity.” Let this be the moment that we turn a crisis of youth mental health into an opportunity to foster greater connection and belonging for all our nation’s children.

David Shapiro is CEO of Mentor, the unifying national champion for expanding quality mentoring relationships for young people.

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