Youth mental health crisis impacts schools and teachers

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The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to the writing or editing of articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Kristy L. Ouellette is an Adjunct Professor of 4-H Youth Development at the University of Maine. This column reflects his opinions and expertise and does not speak for the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars from across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every two weeks.

Maine schools are winding down their last days of the school year, a year where educators, students, staff and parents have been trying to get back to normal. Students have returned to full-time education, with larger class sizes than before. Students were expected to arrive at school prepared, with school supplies, snacks and water bottles packed in their backpacks. Should return to what the school has always been without the supports or interventions in place to address the mental health crisis that many students are experiencing.

Students not only bring their physical backpacks to school, they also wear invisible backpacks; filled with heavy objects, often invisible at first glance, but impacting their school career. These challenges were present in our young people before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, now more than ever, in our local public schools, educators, teachers, staff and parents are seeing the weight of what our young people carry.

You’ve heard the phrase “kids are resilient, they’ll be fine”. As much as we want to believe this claim, data-driven youth mental health says otherwise. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes among young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the United States with a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder.

Our local K-12 public schools are not equipped with the resources to effectively address these challenges. This is a problem that goes beyond classroom management and what is generally expected within the walls of public education. As we collectively returned to a “normal” school year, in most Maine districts there were limited support systems or interventions in place to support what most classrooms needed. Classroom teachers wore the hats of educator, nurse, therapist, behavioral interventionist, disciplinary, food service worker and more, often in the first half hour of school each day.

As school districts across the state adopt their school budgets for 2022-2023, we must invest in supporting all students. Establish the systems and supports needed to provide intervention to students who are experiencing mental health issues. The National Education Association reports that 55% of classroom teachers plan to leave the classroom sooner than they planned. It’s not because teachers want to leave the classroom, it’s often because they don’t get the support they need to be able to do their job. Class teachers in a recent national survey said providing extra mental support for students is a critical need.

In the midst of a national youth mental health crisis, instead of pretending kids are fine, it’s time to act. If you aren’t already, get involved in your local school’s budget process; advocate for systems that will respond to the challenges our children face through innovation and action. Providing our schools with the support they need is only part of the solution.

This issue does not rest solely on the shoulders of public schools. Local, state, and federal politicians and legislators should be encouraged to ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care at the local level. Mental health is an essential part of overall health. The Opinion of the medical general on the protection of the mental health of young people presents a series of recommendations to improve the mental health of young people in eleven sectors, including young people and their families, educators and schools, as well as media and technology companies.

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