OP-ED – Can schools solve our youth health crisis?

BY DR. HAYLEY WATSON

Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2014, are coming of age in a vastly different time than the generations before them. Between a huge amount of screen time spent on social media, mass shootings occurring on an unprecedented scale, body image issues and homelessness, there are intense stressors that are contributing to our youth emotional and mental health crisis. The world of Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube that young people live in provide them with ideas on how they should look and how amazing their lives “should” be, but no ideas on what to do when their lives don’t match what they see online.

Here in New York, we need to do more to address students’ overall health and wellbeing. A recent report from The Trevor Project found that over a third of New York State school districts do not have a suicide prevention policy. Under federal law, all New York school districts must have a wellness policy to address student’s physical health. Yet nearly 90 percent of the state’s district wellness policies are missing at least one federally required component, and very few of these policies address mental or social-emotional health.

That’s not to say that schools don’t care. In fact, they are seeking solutions. In South Orangetown, they tapped the most powerful resource teenagers have: their peers. This year, they piloted the Open Parachute Mental Health Curriculum Program, which combines documentary videos of teens sharing their experiences of overcoming struggles with evidence-based mental health skills building exercises. Students gained critical skills necessary to support each other in a language they can relate to, because it was coming from peer role models.

Before this program, the sight of a despondent teenager would likely have warranted concern from her classmates, but might also have caused fear that they will make things worse. The stigma surrounding mental health can be paralyzing. Now, when a teenager in South Orangetown comes to class looking sad, her peers know what to say to let their friend know that she is not alone in her struggles. In the complex world of teenagers, these peer responses have an impact in many areas of their lives.

As a child and adolescent clinical psychologist, I see first-hand the multi-faceted struggles that today’s youth face. They are bombarded with constant stimulation and social media messaging while being surrounded by junk food. It’s clear that their mental, physical, and emotional health needs are far more complex than ever before. These issues are interconnected, and our approach to solving them must be as well. Like generations before us, we are tasked with the seemingly insurmountable feat of keeping up with the changing world our children inhabit. But the difference between this and previous generations is that the stakes are higher. Much higher.

Research shows that healthy, active kids are better equipped to learn and succeed in school and in life. Mental and physical health are not separate concepts for our kids, and our schools need to approach them holistically from the moment they enter the schoolyard. School districts need tools and resources to support the whole child.

Our state government needs to take a more active role by instituting a model school wellness policy that helps districts connect the dots for students’ physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Districts also need resources, such as programs like the Open Parachute Mental Health Curriculum. That’s why I am supporting the WELL Campaign – calling on New York leaders to pass legislation to create a New York model wellness policy and give districts funding and resources to bring their wellness policies to life, I know we can help our young people thrive.

Dr. Hayley Watson is a clinical psychologist with a PhD in bullying interventions who has been creating and delivering youth programs globally for the past 15 years, working locally with the South Orangetown School District. She is the founder of Open Parachute – a video-based high school mental health curriculum program using documentary stories of teenagers sharing their experiences of overcoming struggle as a platform for reducing stigma and building resilience in students, that is being delivered in schools across the US, Canada, and Australia.