For most of us, when we were in school, we accessed the resources of our school guidance counselor, whose main focus was to help us select our classes, make sure we were on track to graduate, and talk to us about what we wanted to do after high school. If we wanted to go to college, they would send a transcript to the college, and we would wait to hear that we got in, and then go along our merry way. I don’t recall feeling any stress about the college process, or worrying about what classes I was taking, or even thinking that I may not get in. I was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to the college I attended, and looking back on it now, I am not sure how that even happened!
Fast forward to 2019. Times have changed. Students begin to stress about the college application process as early as late elementary school. I have heard comments from sixth graders about community service opportunities and how they will look on a resume. There are record numbers of students applying to college with no more seats added over the years, which has made it even more difficult to get into a four-year school. We add on to that the graduation requirements of SOL tests, verified credits, a virtual course, a credential exam, a sequential elective, an academic career plan, First Aid-CPR training, computer literacy, and what do you want to be when you grow up and how will you pay for it? Students on at-risk lists are tested and retested multiple times in SOLs, and now the credential exam is added to that retest list, which is usually the same student who is already retesting SOLs. All of this then results in stress and anxiety that sometimes escalates into mental health concerns.
You may have seen the alarming statistics that mental health concerns are on the rise. According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34. More than two-thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by age 16 according to SAMHSA, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“There’s somewhat of a stigma built up around mental health that prevents people from getting care,” said State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). “It’s important that mental health issues [are] given the same dignity as physical health issues.”
A recent publication, iGen, by Jean Twenge, asks the question, “Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy- and completely unprepared for adulthood?” She drew her conclusions from over 11 million representative surveys and in-depth interviews. In summary, with social media and texting replacing other activities, iGen spends less time with their friends in person – perhaps this is why they are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
As parents and educators, we must ask ourselves how are we adapting and adjusting to this generation of students. We have to ensure their social-emotional needs are being met in order to meet their academic needs to enable them to be viable, productive citizens.
The school counseling profession has changed dramatically over the past few years, mainly because of the changing needs of our student populations. Below is a chart that demonstrates a few of the changes that have occurred.
Our school counselors are experiencing a rise in working with students with mental health concerns. In Hanover County, we have tracked our numbers over the past two years in several areas, including suicide assessments for those students who have presented as at risk, students on homebound, and student visits to the nurse’s office. Our suicide assessments have risen, particularly at the elementary level. We have also seen a rise in the number of imminent threats. “Imminent threat” means that the student has the ability and a plan to follow through on their suicidal ideation. The number of our students on homebound have risen, with nearly half of them related to social anxiety and depression. The majority of visits to the school nurse are based on anxiety or physical symptoms that can be linked to anxiety.
Hanover County Public Schools is working diligently to explore areas for best practice to provide students, parents, and staff the resources needed to assist with mental health concerns and to combat the stigma surrounding conversations about mental health. This year, we are rolling out the Signs of Suicide program for all 7th and 10th grade students that will educate them on recognizing when they are others could be at-risk. We are also exploring a Social-Emotional Curriculum to implement division-wide, K-12, with resources for faculty and parents imbedded. This will be a two year roll out with the first year having a focus on teaching and modeling the importance of social-emotional care for staff, and the second year emphasizing the SEL model for students.Graduation requirements continue to change, sometimes yearly. We have more students with greater needs every year. Our task list gets longer, and we work tirelessly to try to meet all of our students’ needs. We all have the passion and the heart to provide equitable resources for all of our students, but because of the nature of the job and the cavernous needs of our student populations, this will continue to be a significant challenge. The only viable option is for us to do WHAT’S BEST FOR STUDENTS, and that is to offer resources and training for our families and teachers to assist us in training up the whole child in the areas of academics, careers, and SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL needs.