Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
I was first attracted to the field of public health because it’s the perfect integration of two of my passions: clinical research and advancing public policy. In my previous role as health officer and chief of public health services for Montgomery County in Maryland, I used up-to-the-minute data to advocate for and recommend community health initiatives and policies. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, this work was center stage (and not without its controversies!).
By specializing in pediatrics, I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand the effects of this unprecedented health pandemic on youth in this country. This includes not only physical but also significant student mental health consequences.
Recognizing the breadth of the student mental health crisis
My new role in the field of education has been even more eye-opening on mental health issues and well-being for young people. In fact, the youth mental health crisis in the United States is so dire that in October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, along with the Surgeon General issuing a national advisory in the wake of alarming increases in the prevalence of mental health challenges.
The results of untreated mental health concerns can be wide-ranging and sometimes have serious consequences. I commonly see children struggling with loneliness, social withdrawal, self-harm and physical violence, along with poor academic achievement, which ultimately leads to some students leaving high school altogether. This has major implications for the rest of a child’s life. They often become adults with considerably higher rates of unemployment, poverty, depression, chronic physical and mental illness, incarceration and even a shorter life span.
Mental health issues affect students from all walks of life, but students whom the system has traditionally failed to reach seem to be most affected. This can be due to myriad factors involving systemic issues like racial barriers in access to treatment, lack of parental awareness about the value of therapy, complex insurance coverage and high costs, and inflexible work schedules for caregivers.
Ideas for connecting with students
Finding ways to connect with all students, especially those we have difficulty reaching, requires reimagining our current health delivery and care model. But it’s a challenge education leaders can help meet in three ways.
- Extend school health offices’ reach with an expanded pool of providers. Telehealth services allow more students to be seen in shorter amounts of time. It bridges access to more providers who can care for children while they’re waiting to be seen by a community-based provider. It also circumvents issues with physical distance or time barriers. Medical professionals can work virtually in tandem with school teams to provide therapy sessions with licensed therapists to all students.
- Develop a peer ambassador program. Harness the power of peer pressure for positive outcomes by empowering school leaders to be champions, advocates and peer facilitators for student mental health support. This will help normalize preventive measures, destigmatize the need to seek mental health support and allow students to support one another as they learn from and listen to each other.
- Leverage technology — including social media — to reach young people and share mental health resources. Explore different ways the school district can communicate with parents and students. Speak to students the way they speak to each other. This may involve sending text messages and email, or developing a social media campaign about the importance of mental health awareness. Tap into your most valuable resource — your students — to brainstorm ways to effectively connect with the student body in the ways they want to be seen, heard and cared for and how they wish to interact.
Don’t give up
Prevention and action are the key to ensuring that parents and educators are working to encourage students to seek support. As with any health-related issue, the earlier the intervention, the better the chance of a positive outcome. Breaking down barriers and destigmatizing mental health support is crucial to ensuring children have the tools they need to live a well-balanced life, which can have positive, lifelong results.
Dr. Travis Gayles serves as chief health officer for pediatric telehealth company Hazel Health. He previously served as the health officer and chief of public health services for Montgomery County, Md., and chief medical officer of the District of Columbia Department of Health.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.