My generation is dealing with an escalating mental health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that “one in five… American children and young adults struggle with a mental illness or learning disorder, ” and recent studies have found that the mental health of teenagers and young adults has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. It’s no wonder that this is happening; I have watched my generation become more anxious through our use of and exposure to social media, face more social and academic stressors than many previous generations, and now we are weathering added stress associated with the coronavirus pandemic, and the social unrest and political polarization of the past year.
It’s not only Gen Z who are showing signs of increased struggle. Before 2019, adolescent and young adult deaths by suicide have been on the rise across the United States. The suicide rate for youth between 10 and 24 increased 56% from 2007 to 2017. In 2019, 18.8% of young people considered suicide, and about one in 11 youth made a suicide attempt. While no single characteristic has been identified as a predictor of suicidal behavior, constellations of individual challenges and environmental stressors have been found to be predictive, and many of these challenges are on the rise. If there had been effective policies in place to support young people’s mental health in schools, perhaps these numbers would be different.
I came to The Jed Foundation to better understand how to help.
During my internship, I learned that about two-thirds of the 15 million youth who are struggling with distress or mental illness go untreated or unidentified. Given the complexity of the phenomenon of suicide and the increasing stress and pressure on today’s youth, this absence of effective identification of risk should be viewed as a call to action for widespread, public health-driven approaches to promoting social and emotional health, increasing effective identification of youth in need of supports, and strengthening pathways to needed treatment.
At JED, that’s just what we do.
JED’s work in schools is critical, because schools are one of the most central contexts in adolescent and young adult life.
But JED cannot do this alone. In order to improve the mental health of more young people, we must all call on policy-makers to be the critical drivers of change. The logical place to start? Let’s ask federal and state lawmakers to set mental health requirements for schools, provide mental health resources, and support the important work that schools can do to improve mental health literacy, such as providing suicide prevention trainings for school staff and students, and developing crisis response and management plans that strive for healing and support of all students with mental health challenges.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that school-based suicide prevention and mental health education policies don’t exist. They do exist and most often are the result of passionate advocacy by family members who have lost a young person to suicide. Here are a few examples:
The Jason Flatt Act requires suicide prevention awareness and prevention training for K-12 educators, teachers, and principals and has been passed in more than 20 states to date.
Adi’s Act requires Oregon school districts to create a comprehensive plan on suicide prevention for students, with a focus on LGBTQ+ youth, foster children, and adolescents with disabilities.
These policies are powerful and groundbreaking, but a young person should not have to die by suicide for suicide prevention and mental health promotion policy to be introduced. The numbers and data around suicide rates should be enough for policymakers to create and enforce legislation around mental health education and suicide prevention in schools.
Oftentimes, policies relating to mental health in schools are too siloed. In states that have school-based suicide prevention related policy, legislation most often centers around one or two key areas (suicide prevention training, mental health education, and/or crisis management protocols), but few, if any, align with the kind of comprehensive, multi-layered approach that we have developed at JED.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, mental health has been at the forefront. Teenagers and young adults, in particular, are facing isolation and uncertainty as schools have turned virtual and the future seems more uncertain than ever. State and federal officials should not wait for a tragedy to occur and a family’s advocacy to enact policy, rather they should look at suicide rates and enforce legislation before any more tragedies occur. Let’s call on policy makers to enact and fund mandatory, integrated mental health promotion and suicide prevention programming in all of our country’s high schools.
During my time at The Jed Foundation, I have learned about JED’s advocacy efforts. JED is working to help policy makers develop and support legislation and grants that will facilitate the implementation of comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention plans for secondary and higher education institutions.
To do your part in pushing for policy action, contact your representatives and advocate for the importance of suicide prevention and mental health promotion policies in schools. Click the links below to find your representatives and help us make a change that is long overdue.
Click here to learn more about JED’s advocacy work, policy platform, and endorsed legislation.
Click here to find out who your state policy makers are.
Click here to find out how to contact your region’s representative in Congress.
Click here and look for the “Find Your Senator” pull down menu at the upper left of the Senate webpage.