COVID-19, along with heightened racial trauma, has caused unprecedented disruption in the lives of youth aged 10–18. These combined experiences have led to increases in mental health concerns among young people, including stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts.
Addressing these negative impacts requires education leaders, school districts, state and local decision makers, parents, teachers, and youth to work together to ensure that young people have the support and resources needed to address their mental, emotional, and behavioral health needs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This guidance from the Societal Experts Action Network and the Forum for Children’s Well-Being identifies school-based strategies for addressing the mental health and well-being challenges among youth that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Centering and listening to the perspectives and voices of young people and supporting their individual agency is critical in shaping appropriate policy responses. To better understand the experiences of young people, educators, and parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Societal Experts Action Network and Forum for Children’s Well-Being of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine hosted a public workshop on May 20, 25, and 27, 2021. Young people noted both challenges and opportunities that arose during the pandemic year.
The students stressed that while their schools had discussed mental health issues more openly during the past year, schools need to focus on mental health and inclusivity regularly. Some schools have created youth-led depression and equity groups to address specific needs related to mental health and diversity, which helps youth stay engaged and connected with peers.
During the school year, many teachers were flexible and allowed youth to turn assignments in late for full credit and take breaks throughout the day, recognizing the need for grace during periods of stress and uncertainty, students noted. As one high school sophomore said, “just stretching and moving a little during downtime was super helpful for my mental health and overall well-being.”
Respecting young people’s authentic self-representation by allowing them to share their names and personal pronouns on a virtual learning platform or in a classroom were validating for all young people. As a recent high school graduate said, “I found [the virtual meetings] very stressful. As a trans person, I was not allowed to put my name on any of my profiles, and a lot of my identity was very covered up.”
For many youth, school-based services are their primary means of accessing mental health care. Schools can address mental health and well-being among youth by understanding their holistic needs and creating opportunities for screening, prevention, and treatment of mental health conditions. The strategies below can be implemented in schools to support the mental health needs of all youth:
The pandemic year presented educators and staff with unprecedented challenges and necessitated near-constant retooling to meet ever-changing conditions. Many educators and school staff are experiencing increased burnout, stress, anxiety, and fear related to returning to school. To address the mental health needs of students, education leaders must also support the wellbeing of educators and school staff.
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This rapid expert consultation was produced by SEAN (supported by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) in collaboration with the Forum for Children’s Well-being (supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Board of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Children’s Hospital Association, Family Voices, the Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice, the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Well Being Trust, and ZERO TO THREE).
Read the guidance online at https://www.nap.edu/resource/26084/interactive.
Are you a policy maker? Do you have a question you need answered? SEAN will consider the most pressing questions and engage the nation’s experts to focus on your challenges. Contact us at SEAN@nas.edu or 202-334-3440.
SEAN is a network of experts in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences poised to assist decision makers at all levels as they respond to COVID-19. The network appreciates any and all feedback on its work. Please send comments to SEAN@nas.edu.