As we approach the third anniversary of COVID lockdowns, parents, educators, medical professionals, and government experts continue to worry about the impacts of prolonged social isolation on young people. News outlets and government studies report higher levels of anxiety and depression in teens following an upward trend that began well before the pandemic. We explore what’s going on and how schools like Shipley can offer support.
Our PanelNicole Christian-Brathwaite ‘99, MD
Head of Medical and Clinical Strategy, Headway
CEO, Well Minds Consulting Company
Meghan O’Meara ’00, LPC, NCC
Director of the Student Counseling Center, Thomas Jefferson University
Sharron Russell, PsyD
Director of Student Support and Director of Positive Education, The Shipley School
Q: What trends in mental health concerns are you seeing among young people in 2022?
Russell: I think the primary trend is that young people are talking about mental health more than ever. We hear data about the rise in mental illness and disorders, but it is difficult to know how much of that is an increase in actual disorder or just better identification. That being said, young people are more aware of when they themselves or their friends are struggling, and, in my opinion and from our experience at Shipley, look out for each other and provide support.
O’Meara ’00: As Sharron pointed out, mental health is being talked about more. The information is being shared on different platforms that young adults access. It is important to note that the information shared on these platforms may not always be accurate when it comes to mental health. However, there has been a decreased rate of help seeking amongst college students (Healthy Minds Survey, 2021) but an increase in mental health treatment for those under 45 (Center for Disease Control, 2022). Anxiety disorders and depression continue to be the most common concerns impacting young adults today. This has resulted in longer waits in the community for mental health support, especially if people want to use their insurance to cover services.
Christian-Brathwaite ’99: We are certainly seeing a rise in children and adolescents presenting with significant mental health concerns. There is also alarming research indicating increases in rates of suicide and suicide attempts, particularly among adolescents of color and LGBTQI youth. Suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst youth ages 10-19. Some studies have shown that rates of suicide amongst Black or African-American youth have increased by 60% over the last five years. According to a 2022 survey from the Trevor Project, nearly half of LGBTQI youth have seriously considered suicide within the past year.
"Schools should provide tiered support and universal intervention that benefits all students, particularly in the area of emotional awareness, emotional agility, and resilience. We do this at Shipley in our SEED program.”
—Sharron Russell, PsyD
Q: What are contributing factors to the current situation?
Russell: There is a lot of research to show that the increase in depression and anxiety is directly linked to younger students having cell phones and thus immediate and uncensored access to social media. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work has been incredibly eye-opening to me; his tracing of how things have changed and fragmented is particularly interesting.
O’Meara ’00: The pandemic was a catalyst for important conversations around how to take care of ourselves and mental health. This is now being reflected in what we are seeing and hearing. For young adults, the pandemic happened at a time when they were in a vulnerable stage of life trying to figure out who they are.
Christian-Brathwaite ‘99: Decades of research reveals that early childhood trauma or toxic stress increases the risk of developing mental and physical illness in adulthood. These experiences are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Black and Latino youth are significantly more likely to have a higher ACE score than their white counterparts, thus increasing the risk of suicide, depression, PTSD and anxiety. Covid has unfortunately amplified many of these stressors and increased traumatic exposures for already vulnerable children.
Q: What should the role of schools be in addressing the mental health of students?
Russell: I think schools are critical in addressing mental health from both a preventative approach and from our ability to provide interventions. Parents and guardians often need our feedback and understanding of typical development, sometimes to help see that something is an area of concern, and sometimes to help them see that something is not actually a concern. We can provide that normative view of their child and help them to see their child in the larger context. As far as directly addressing mental health, I think schools should provide tiered support and universal intervention that benefits all students, particularly in the area of emotional awareness, emotional agility, and resilience. We do this at Shipley in our SEED program, which provides this type of learning to every student once a week, PreK through Grade 12.
The second level is supportive counseling or advising, which is provided by trusted adults or advisors. The third level is support from a counselor either in school or outside of school. One thing that we also use is a universal screening measure for all 6th-12th grade students, in which we measure their self-reported well-being, anxiety, and depression. This has been extremely helpful to us in addressing individual and group needs before they reach crisis level.
O’Meara ’00: Schools can assist in identifying and connecting students to resources, as well as educating students on mental health. Providing training on mental health so that teachers, administrators, and other students are able to identify those who are in need of support can also be a critical role for schools. Many times, teachers and coaches are on the frontline to identify when a student might need more support. Providing additional training, continued education, and support to this group could have a positive impact on students and their mental health.
Christian-Brathwaite ’99: It is critical for schools to become safe, supportive, and trauma-sensitive environments. This requires a shift in culture, disciplinary practices, training, and specifically addressing bias and racism in the educational system. A trauma sensitive school focuses on equity—meaning every child is individually assessed and given the support and structure they need to be successful. It is not a one-size-fits-all model. Trauma sensitivity means focusing on a child’s strengths rather than deficits, and understanding that behaviors are often a form of communication. Many children are suffering, and if we are not aware and mindful, we may exacerbate underlying trauma.
Schools should train every individual who has contact with a student on becoming trauma sensitive. Include student voice in leadership, decision-making, and discipline. Ensure that any child who walks into Shipley feels supported and welcomed. Does every child of color feel safe and represented? Does every LGBTQI child feel seen, heard, and protected? Our students can help define what safety is for them and how that shows up in our day-to-day.
Q: What lessons have we learned in the last three years about adolescent mental health?
Russell: It’s complicated. For some parts of the pandemic and during lockdowns, some of our students were telling us that they were doing better than ever—getting more sleep, feeling more focused, spending time with family. As things continued and more uncertainty arose, those positive stories changed. I have a difficult time talking about adolescent mental health in a group or aggregate as mental health is such an individual and changing process.
O’Meara ’00: Mental health is present in adolescents and deserves attention. If we neglect our mental health it will have an impact in all areas of our lives. The pandemic has shown us that we need to have a variety of self-care items, support systems, and coping skills in place.
Christian-Brathwaite ’99: Many children are suffering silently—certainly more than we are aware. These children need additional support and affirmation. However, they often receive negative consequences or discipline. Adults may not realize that the behaviors they are witnessing are secondary to trauma. By creating a more psychologically safe and trauma-sensitive environment, we are more aware and can identify those students earlier and intervene appropriately.
Q: What role can a strong/tight-knit community play in buttressing young peoples’ well-being and mental health outcomes?
Russell: Our students here at Shipley are taught to be “upstanders” in a variety of ways and they take that role seriously when it comes to their friends and supporting each other. As part of the well-being screening discussed earlier, we ask each student to identify five trusted adults, and then we ask our teachers/coaches/staff to identify students they “know well.” When young people feel known by adults and they have developed a trusting relationship, that community provides a safe place for students to experience difficulty as well as success.
Christian-Brathwaite ’99: Studies reveal that relationships are one of the most valuable tools in helping children who have experienced trauma. Dr. Bruce Perry, a world-renowned child psychiatrist, frequently notes that the largest difference between children who are able to thrive despite their trauma and those who continue to struggle is the presence of at least one supportive adult who cares for them unconditionally. He has a beautiful quote: “The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
WHAT CAN SCHOOLS DO?
In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a rare public health advisory calling attention to the growing mental health crisis impacting young people and offering recommendations for schools, including these:
• Create positive, safe, and affirming school environments.
• Expand social and emotional learning programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development.
• Learn how to recognize signs of changes in mental and physical health among students.
• Provide a continuum of supports to meet student mental health needs.
• Support the mental health of all school personnel.
Learn more about how Shipley's approach to educational excellence incorporates a multi-faceted approach to student well-being and mental health.