The U.S. surgeon general this month issued a stark warning about the state of mental health among America’s youth. Citing mounting evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to social isolation, feelings of hopelessness, and self-harm among adolescents, his public health advisory urged immediate action to support young people’s mental health and well-being.
As professionals who work closely with schools, community organizations, and young people, we’ve been sounding the alarm on this looming crisis since the beginning of the pandemic — so we welcome the surgeon general’s warning and call to action.
Yet we worry that the response to this crisis will fail to address its root causes, or will simply ask already overstretched schools and teachers to take on yet another massive challenge. The truth is, the responsibility of supporting young people’s well-being falls on all of us, regardless of what we do or where we live.
The mental health crisis, at its core, is a crisis of connection. That’s why our collective response must take a relationships-first approach. We need a national effort — among family members, schools, community organizations, policymakers, and others — to ensure that every young person has stable, supportive and healthy relationships with peers or adults.
Research points to the importance of “webs of support” for young people’s healthy development. A strong web of support operates as a buffer against the stresses and hardships inherent in life, especially during critical periods of development such as adolescence. They provide young people with a sense of stability, purpose, and belonging — all of which we know are critical to healthy development and well-being.
But over the past year and a half, many young people’s webs of support have been seriously weakened. They’ve experienced isolation, disconnection, and, for some, trauma and loss. Many were cut off from key sources of connection when schooling went virtual and extracurricular activities were canceled. And more than 167,000 children have lost parents or caregivers to COVID-19.
If we are to address the mental health crisis, we must address this disconnection and the trauma it has caused.
What would a relationships-first approach to the youth mental health crisis look like?
For one, we must recognize the importance of getting all students back in school where they are most likely to form and maintain connections. Despite a return to in-person instruction, the share of “chronically absent” students remains high, with absentee rates highest among low-income students. School districts across the country have struggled to reestablish contact with thousands of students who fell off their radars during the pandemic.
Reengaging these students and families requires ramping up relationship-building efforts through family outreach and collaboration with community organizations, as well as understanding and addressing the conditions that led them to disconnect in the first place. School districts should follow the lead of Detroit and other places that are investing a portion of federal relief funds to this end.
But while schools have an essential role to play in supporting students’ well-being and social and emotional development, the responsibility cannot fall solely on teachers’ shoulders. Parents, neighbors, faith leaders, coaches, and community organizations all have a role to play if we are to ensure every young person has a stable, supportive relationship with a peer or adult.
For individuals, that might mean stepping up to serve as a mentor or tutor for a young person. Tutors and mentors are critical to boosting the academic, social, and emotional skills that are central to students’ success. Young people with a mentor, for example, are less likely to skip school and more likely to enroll in college than those without one.
Connecting with community organizations that offer youth mentoring and tutoring opportunities is more accessible than ever. Through the national READY SET campaign, you can find opportunities to mentor, tutor, or volunteer in your community. Many mentoring and tutoring programs even offer virtual opportunities.
To be sure, there is no panacea to the youth mental health crisis. Taking a relationships-focused approach does not mean ignoring systemic barriers that prevent far too many young people from accessing mental health care. Nor does it imply that broader issues such as poverty, racism, and inadequate funding for school counselors and psychologists are less important.
After a year and a half of disconnection, focusing on relationships gives each of us an opportunity to step up for America’s students in a time of crisis. The action that adults take now to care for young people will make a crucial and lasting difference in our collective recovery from the pandemic.
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