Increasing numbers of students and young people around the country are contending with mental health concerns. A troubling and precipitous rise in teen suicides, overdoses, and depression has many legislators exploring solutions to reverse this trend and give students access to the mental health resources they need to thrive.
Increased social media use has had a profound impact on students’ mental health, and on the psychological well-being of teenage girls in particular. Research has linked the upswing in cyberbullying and normalization of unrealistic beauty standards to growing rates of depression and suicide in this demographic.
Moreover, frequent social media use can lower self-esteem by promoting these unrealistic beauty standards. This isn’t to say that social media use is all bad, but its impact on mental health cannot be ignored.
Compounding the effects of modern technology on developing young minds, the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in many states and compelled students to spend even more time online. While remote learning and online education have their benefits, one of the major drawbacks is that they can exacerbate some of the worst effects of social media and cyberbullying.
Given the very real and present mental health concerns that students face today, state legislators are looking for ways to improve students’ mental health outcomes. One of the most popular policy responses that many states have implemented is to allow students the ability to take a certain allotment of mental health days in the same way that they’re able to take sick days. At the same time, state government officials and school administrators are making moves to expand access to mental health resources so that students that take mental health days will be able to access therapy.
In Illinois, the policy that offers students the ability to take mental health days went into effect in early 2022 and was passed unanimously in both chambers of the state legislature. However, many mental health experts still see policies like these as insufficient to address the broader mental health crisis that students face today.
Case and point, many parts of the country face a shortage of therapists and mental health professionals. In fact, almost half of the country lives in areas with designated mental health worker shortages. Moreover, even in areas where mental health services are available, patients often face obstacles to getting that care covered by their insurance providers.
At the same time, telehealth services are increasingly becoming available to students. The ability to access qualified therapists and mental health professionals through the internet represents an exciting breakthrough for a population of young digital natives. In this sense, digital technologies may be able to play a positive role in improving the quality of mental health resources accessible by students.
These mental health resources are sorely needed given that seventy percent of schools that responded to a federal survey said that more students sought mental health services since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Moreover, long-term mask use has many child psychologists and pediatricians worried about speech and emotional developmental delays in students.
Another approach that many states are taking is making practices like mindfulness meditation more available to students in classrooms. These approaches are lower-cost options that include many students in practices that can help to improve mental health outcomes.
Students are using new policies that offer mental health days in a variety of ways. Some students are choosing to take mental health days in order to seek support while resolving conflicts with other students, or even bullying and abuse.
Other students claim that returning to a chaotic classroom environment after being locked down and quarantined for long periods of time is incredibly challenging. Mental health days could help these students adapt to changing learning environments, and in states like Texas, mental health services are opening to meet these needs. One great example is Geode Health, with locations opening in the Dallas area.
Proponents of mental health days for students believe that these policies could save lives by allowing students to step away from and deal with toxic or abusive interactions with other students.
Critics of this policy claim that in practice it represents a half-measure that is unlikely to produce real benefits, and that it could, in fact, present unintended consequences by forcing students to catch up on missed assignments and schoolwork.
Nonetheless, virtually everyone agrees that the uptick in teen suicides is a serious problem that must be addressed and that students dealing with any form of mental illness should have the tools to improve their physical and mental health.