In the past few years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of middle school and high school students suffering from depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Some link these numbers to excessive homework loads, high expectations, and other stressors related to academic and social pressures. Others point to screen time and social media. Regardless of their cause, mental health struggles are on the rise among teenagers and our schools are not doing enough to help students.
In speaking with students across the state, Oregon Student Voice found that 1 in 3 students are not aware that there are mental health resources at their schools, and only half of students believe they are easily accessible. A junior at Lincoln High School states, “most of my friends struggle with [their] mental health, and there are no resources which are actively being promoted at [our] school.” What this student points out is one of the major problems in Oregon’s schools: mental health resources are not “promoted,” or made accessible to students.
Schools are required to have counselors, although they are not specifically trained in dealing with a mental health crisis, to support students as well as mental health resources posted on their website. Many schools also have a specialized mental health counselor, who sometimes work in school-based health centers. However, as is the case at Lincoln, students are often unaware of the resources at their disposal. During freshman year orientations or in health courses, students are provided with a list of mental health resources they are able to access. But, this list is often lacking and changes from year to year. Students do not receive an update on these changes and are left to unsure of where to go in the midst of a crisis.
Another issue is the limited number of counselors themselves. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an average of 1 in 5 high school students nationwide experience a mental health crisis so severe that they have difficulty functioning in schools. And if Oregon mirrors this trend, our low number of counselors means that there is only 1 counselor for every 120 students. These counselors are often trained to help students with academic success and already have a high caseload, adding in supporting students through a mental health crisis adds additional stress. School-based mental health counselors have been found to be extremely helpful, but students often find themselves waiting days or weeks before getting the chance to speak with them. Waiting can feel like a lifetime when a student is experiencing a crisis, and may result in the student not seeking the help he/she/they need.
Oregon Student Voice believes there are many policy options to address these concerns. First, we believe the state should increase funding to support more school-based health clinics, especially in middle schools and rural areas, to increase access to mental health counselors for students. Second, we want schools and districts to update the mental health resources on their websites annually in order to ensure resources are relevant and useful to students. Finally, we call for counselors to speak with students about mental health issues and the grade-level resources available in Language Arts classes at the beginning of each semester. These conversations will provide students with a reminder to reflect on their mental health as well as provide necessary resources.
We believe that these policy options will ultimately allow students to lead healthier and happier lives, will increase suicide risk prevention rates, and will create school environments in which students feel safe and welcomed. While some schools are currently making strides to address their students’ declining mental health, others are not doing enough. Making improvements to mental health resources through statewide policy options will hopefully provide students with the help they need to succeed in school.
Learn more about about the need for improved mental health resources in our schools by reading our recent policy brief here.
Dana Smiley is a junior at Lincoln High School and a Student Voice Blogger at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.