By Kevin Singer and Sam Ludlow-Broback
Fresh off of a long-drawn pandemic, young Americans are struggling with mental health at startling rates. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently warned, “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide,” adding, “The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating.”
A new report from Springtide Research Institute, where we (Kevin and Sam) share about Gen Z with the world, sheds light on just how dire the situation for students at America’s schools and colleges can be. Mental Health & Gen Z: What Educators Need to Know, a result of over 3,000 surveys and 80 interviews with middle school, high school, and college/university students, prompts urgent questions about how schools can provide better support to students who are struggling.
In this blog, we will share the most striking findings from the report, including a vision for how schools can better address the pervasive mental health issues faced by students. Schools continue to provide students with more mental health touchpoints than other spaces they frequent in life, making it all the more critical that schools provide the best possible interventions.
Just how bad is it?
Springtide’s new report suggests depression, anxiety, and trauma are in the air students breathe. Over 1 in 3 students told Springtide they’re not flourishing in their mental health, while 55% say they’ve experienced trauma in the past, and 49% have talked to a mental health professional in the last three months.
At school, over a third of students say they feel lonely often or most of the time, while 45% say they don’t know who to go to for help at school with emotional challenges.
A recent CDC survey made similar discoveries: 37% of U.S. high school students reported regular mental health struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pressure at school
While the pandemic surely contributed to these trends, there have been pressures at school that threatened student mental health long before COVID-19 struck our shared world.
Springtide interviewed 80 students for Mental Health & Gen Z, an overarching theme being that schools don’t reflect enough on how unreasonable demands along with “performative” mental health resources create a toxic culture wherein the restless pursuit of college preparation outweighs student well-being.
An already startling mental health forecast for students is only magnified for students in the LGBTQ+ community. Springtide found dramatic differences in student mental health when sexual and gender orientation were considered. LGBTQ+ students are more likely to say they feel lonely at school (48%) than heterosexual students (31%), while only 47% of LGBTQ+ students say “I feel safe at my school sharing things about my life” compared to 61% of straight students.
Nonbinary students walk an exceptionally arduous path at America’s schools. Less than half (48%) of nonbinary students agree that their school helps them succeed, compared to 71% of female-identifying and 75% of male-identifying students.
What can be done?
In the interviews, young people continually shared that their school’s mental health initiatives are rooted more in crisis response than crisis prevention. While students struggle under the pressures that schools themselves often create, some felt school counselors placed too much emphasis on grades at the cost of students simply feeling better.
“Even your guidance counsellors at school will be like, ‘I’ll help you, but you have to get a good grade on your test because you don’t want your grades suffering,’” Julie, a high school student, told Springtide.
Addressing this crisis appropriately will require schools to fully understand and acknowledge the underlying pressures placed on today’s students while instilling a mental health conscious culture where teachers, staff, and students are speaking openly about mental health and supporting one another.
Springtide has observed that mental health friendly cultures promote social connection, create achievable expectations, and help students develop a strong sense of purpose. When students feel like they belong at their school, have the tools to feel confident toward meeting expectations, and see a bigger purpose for their lives than “getting good grades,” they are more likely to say they’re flourishing in their mental health.
Even more, schools need to rally around their LGBTQ+ students, who find their schools to be less hospitable to success than straight and cis-gender students. For example, LGBTQ+ students are more likely to hesitate to see the school counsellor because “I was afraid I’d be judged” (32%) than straight students (24%).
“School counsellors need to advocate for and support LGBTQ students in the face of such victimization,” professors from several schools told Counseling Today. Roberto L. Abreu of Tennessee State University, Adriana G. McEachern and Maureen C. Kenny of Florida International University, and Jennifer Geddes Hall of Clemson University note that “providing training to all students, parents, and school staff is critical to reducing incidents of bullying and harassment and increasing awareness and sensitivity to the issues LGBTQ students confront in schools.”
For many students, their school provides more mental health touchpoints than any other setting in their lives — schools are at the forefront of innovative mental health initiatives, and with good reason. Teachers, administrators, coaches, counsellors, professors, and staff meet young people during some of their most formative years. Schools that create connection, and foster alignment between tools and expectations can make a significant difference by engendering mental health friendly cultures where students are taught not just to succeed, but to flourish.
If we want to truly promote the mental health and thriving of young people, we have to reimagine core values and metrics of success in American society — not only in our classrooms, but in our communities, and households too.