In a 2021 report, the Surgeon General outlined the fact that today’s generation of children face challenges that are “unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate,” which are having a devastating impact on their mental health

With so much news occurring right now, it would not be surprising if many people did not see the recent Surgeon General’s warning on youth mental health. However, this warning paints an alarming picture regarding an important issue for the American school system.

In a 2021 report, the Surgeon General outlined the fact that today’s generation of children face challenges that are “unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate,” which are having a devastating impact on their mental health. This report cited studies that have found that one-third of high school students (included half of female students) report experiencing persisting feelings of hopelessness, a figure that has risen by 40% in just over a decade. With this in mind, it is important to investigate the youth mental health crisis and how schools can intervene.

Causes of the Youth Mental Health Crisis

When attempting to understand youth mental health, it is important to view it through a holistic lens which illustrates that there is ultimately at ecological model at play, with many things affecting mental and emotional health. These factors include the individual, their relationships, organizations like schools, communities, policies, and society.

Thus, it is understandable that the causes of the youth mental health crisis discussed by the Surgeon General are widespread and varied. They include things such as the increased relevance of social media, a lack of access to mental health care for adolescents, and exposure to a cascading series of major toxic stress incidents such as the 2008 financial crisis, increasing income inequality, gun violence, racism, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which were cited specifically in the Surgeon General’s report.

The increased prevalence of poor emotional health and toxic stress in the lives of school-age students has created a push for increased emotional wellness. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association recently released a joint statement declaring adolescent mental health as a national emergency. The Surgeon General cited a number of evidence-based risk factors that put youth at greater risk of developing mental health problems including:

  • Experiencing financial instability, food shortages, or housing instability

  • Living in an urban area

  • Experiencing adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, or discrimination

  • Experiencing disruptions in routine

Costs of this Mental Health Crisis

When considering the impact of the youth mental health crisis, it is important to understand that there are significant costs for students as well as society. In terms of costs to young people, experiencing mental health problems can lead to a number of immediate and future issues. Immediate problems may include decreased learning, poor academic performance, impaired decision making, impacts to physical health, and increased drug use. Long-term, this can lead to the loss of supportive relationships, a lack of self-esteem, and an increased likelihood of chronic health problems such as cardiovascular disease. Poor emotional health can also lead to suicide, which is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-24.

The youth mental health crisis also generates significant social costs. Youth mental health problems is associated with medical problems later in life due to both being frequently caused by toxic stress, which burdens the health care system. Unaddressed youth mental health also leads to an increase in incarceration rates.

There is also a fairly significant financial cost. The Rand Organization found that mental health care for children and adolescents cost nearly $12 billion annually. This is only for the direct cost of mental health treatment. Societal costs for associated health problems developing later in life and other effects of poor emotional health are difficult to estimate but would be staggering.

The Role of SEL Skills in Emotional Health

Fortunately, there are many things that can be done to address the youth mental health crisis. One important proactive solution includes helping develop resilience and overall emotional wellness through the implementation of an SEL curriculum. SEL refers to social and emotional learning, the concept of teaching important skills such as self-management, relationships skills, self-awareness, and other concepts.

In fact, the incorporation and expansion of SEL programs in schools was a critical recommendation from the Surgeon General’s report on the crisis. This is not surprising as teaching SEL skills is an evidence-based method of improving resilience and encouraging positive emotional wellness in students.

Research has consistently shown that teaching SEL skills leads to significant improvement in overall mental health of children and adolescents. Research published by Princeton University found that an SEL curriculum leads to self-confidence, improved grades, and lower conduct problems while long-term producing students more likely to be ready for college, successful in careers, engaged in positive relationships, and with better mental health.

Further research has cited the vast importance of early intervention for youth mental health. An SEL curriculum is centered upon evidence-based concepts shown to proactively address emotional wellness. For example, Clymb’s program is designed with the CASEL framework as a foundation. This framework has been thoroughly vetted by the academic peer-review process and is shown to significantly promote mental health in children.

For schools interested in addressing the mental health crisis, instituting an SEL curriculum can be done even with the already extensive demands on teachers. Programs like Clymb can be implemented in as little as three minutes per day while aspects of emotional intelligence can easily be woven into existing components of curriculum. One of the benefits of technological approaches to emotional wellness is that it allows for easy customization and individualization of an SEL curriculum.

The ecological model of mental health reveals that solving this issue is complex and requires many interventions at various levels. For schools, implementing an SEL curriculum is an important proactive step towards creating a positive and affirming learning environment and helping students develop resiliency and emotional intelligence. Leveraging these evidence-based strategies for success is an important way to best serve the emotional wellness needs of all students.