With the rates of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety rising quickly in our younger generations, society as a whole needs to find ways to create safer spaces and address stigmas that have hindered our mental hygiene. Right now, 1 in 5 high schoolers suffers from a mental health condition. 80% of those with illnesses do not receive any of the help and care they need to recover. With COVID-19 adding to the stress and uncertainty for high school students, these numbers are still increasing day by day. The problem is, there are so many factors that contribute to the increase in mental illness that it’s hard to address them all; especially in rigid school systems and with a lack of communication between teenagers and adults. The pressures of social media, economic instabilities rising, isolation, and the build-up of expectations in academic and extracurricular success are some of many inputs that result in mental instability for high school and college students. Despite the help of school counsellors, the mental health of students all around the world will continue to deteriorate without additional action. So what can we do? And how can each person make small teaspoons of change that can help add up to our final solution?
The BioPsychoSocial Perspectives…
Mental illnesses can be analysed under 3 main approaches or factors. These factors are important in understanding how mental illness impacts and is influenced by the patient’s surroundings and traits.
Physiological pathology, including disruptances in hormonal, immune and neurotransmitter functioning in the patient’s body.
Emotions, thoughts and behaviours, including coping methods, negative emotions and fear.
Social, economic, environmental and cultural factors, such as strained relationships, bullying and economic or familial instability/stress.
One of the largest hindrances in the progress towards better mental hygiene for high school students is the cooperation and communication between adults and youth. Many American public schools don’t have access to counsellors or psychiatrists, and those who do have limited numbers for such large student bodies. Even with the help of mental health professionals, students often struggle to convey problems with teachers or adults outside of school to get help on a deeper level.
The stigmas around mental illness vary around the globe, but many are caused by the success-based society we have today; with academic accomplishment and extracurricular participation placed as priorities in many cultures and households, the pressures of achievement often overrun the need to address mental disorders and/or instability. Many cultures turn away from the possibility of mental illness as a whole, overall restricting the agency to take action and create safe spaces for those in need.
Mental health stigmas and a lack of support and communication with adults heavily ties into the social factor that can influence teenagers’ mental well-being. With such negative social influences, cognitive patterns such as negative thinking become more common.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for the increase in mental problems for youth around the globe. Student isolation has lead to escalated stress levels, adding to economic instability, uncertainty and panic. As concerns continue to rise, mental problems will as well.
So What Should We Do?
Get adults involved and proactive
If we want to make a change in our communities, the foremost plan of action is to find any way to get adults more involved. Whether these be relatives, friends or teachers, reaching out and communicating with those who are older will help to expand support systems for those in need and increase awareness of the problems the youth face. Doing so with teachers will especially help to create a more comfortable and suitable environment for those struggling with school. In addition to individual needs, getting adults to be more proactive in the advocation for mental health as a whole will allow for more serious action to be taken, with involvement in support groups, clubs and access to therapy.
Give more access
Again, any form of support is essential for those in need of help. Access to therapy is vital, but the help of social support groups and the possibility of getting medical treatments is also an important factor in the recovery stages. Clubs (especially in school settings) which are created to support students with any form of mental instability can greatly increase the quality of education and school life for many students.
Information & education
Enabling people to learn more about the rising problem at hand will later on help to instigate more change for the better. Currently, too little of the population knows about the seriousness of the effects of mental illness on teenagers and its prominence in the younger generations. Through hard copy informationals, social media and exhibition, larger portions of the public can learn about the problem and help to take action. The biggest cause of stigmas in communities is a lack of education about the nature of mental health as a whole.
Be understanding for anyone who reaches out and anyone who doesn’t. Actively displaying empathy and care can have a huge impact for those who are struggling; encouragement and reassurance can be the reason why someone improves. It’s important to remember that we might never know what someone is truly going through; being kind and non-judgemental is never harmful.
In My Community…
Let’s take my own community as an example.
In an IB School in Hanoi, our community is very academically-driven, with success placed as the number one priority for students. Despite the predominantly foreign teacher roster, our own generally Asian cultures drive the pressures that cause us stress and negative habits. Despite some efforts to address mental health through biweekly counseling blocks and counselor offices, many students become overly stressed and develop mental illnesses without feeling like they have any support sources; especially when they enter the Diploma Programme.
My first step of action was to evaluate my school in relation to the 4 main steps I should take. In my case, the information and education portion is already filled. Our Physical & Health Education classes have month-long units each year to provide us with knowledge on mental well-being and our counselors provide both the student body and teachers with a surplus of information on how to reach out and cope with illnesses. Additionally, our teachers are quite proactive and make sure to get in touch with students who they think are starting to struggle. Over distance learning, they communicated with parents when needed to address concerns and made sure to alter workloads depending on the well-being of students. The main problems are our access and support; despite there being ways for us to reach out to our counselors, friends or family, many students aren’t comfortable with the idea of sharing their problems. This may be because of discomfort, fear or shame, but either way, many lack the support they need. Unfortunately, there’s limited access to mental health professionals even outside of school, and there are very few school-handled associations and initiatives to address mental health problems or concerns.
If I were to take action in my own community, my first steps would be in correlation with the points I noted to be the weakest in our situation; access and support. In order to address the lack of student access to external help, I could get in touch with our school counselors to dig deep and find good mental health professionals to contact for students with various different mental illnesses and find ways to make those contacts widely available; this can be through posters, websites or even the school database. On the other hand, I could also work with the school programs we have and help to expand our current reaches so that students can more easily access help. In terms of support, I could think about starting up support groups or clubs; whether the club would be to help students get in touch with professionals & start the recovery process or to just spend time with one another and create a comfortable safe space for anyone who wants to share, clubs can help people become more comfortable in a school environment and gain more friends as a support system for one another.
These would just be my first steps; in the future, there are many ways to build on past actions. But it’s a good start!
(Mental Health First Aid)
The battle to advocate for mental health is a long and uphill one; but we’ve already made substantial progress. Tiny teaspoons of change made by lots of people can lead to great big improvements over time. Start small; like asking that one friend if they’re doing okay, or asking a teacher about the possibility of creating a support group for those struggling in school. Finding ways to get more people involved and helping is a great way to start addressing mental health. Don’t worry if it’s gradual, or barely there; consistent, resilient effort is the best way to create tangible and positive change for your school and community as a whole.
What Will You Do?
In the comments, let me know:
- With the steps above, what would your first action be to address mental health in your own school?
- If you were a teacher, what’s one thing you would do to improve the classroom for those struggling with mental health?
- What’s one way you’ve practiced mental hygiene during this pandemic and how did it help you?
Feel free to converse with others in the discussion!