Address Student Mental Health
When a student feels sick during the school day, he visits the school nurse. But if the problem is emotional or psychological in nature, where can the student turn for help? That’s the dilemma some Pennsylvania students face when they are bullied by classmates. Tragically, bullying reportedly played in a role in student suicides in Columbia, York, and Blair counties this year. These heartbreaking cases should be a wake-up call to parents, policy makers and school administrators. Bullied students often suffer in silence and internalize the emotional trauma of their experiences. Their grades may suffer and they may even drop out of school. In adulthood, the emotional scars they carry can resurface as post-traumatic stress disorder, family dysfunction, violence and addiction. Society pays the enormous costs of these problems that can span generations. Shortly after the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Gov. Tom Wolf and I launched a school safety task force. Our top goal was to listen to those on the front lines of school violence: students who need to be heard and amplified. Their top concern was nearly always the same: a need for better access to mental health services. As our task force report explained, students struggle with pressure and anxiety and too often find themselves ill-equipped to handle the resulting stress. They need classes dedicated to social and emotional learning. They need qualified mental health professionals in their schools. Pennsylvania has adopted laws to strengthen ways schools can act to prevent bullying. But new laws, by themselves, cannot do the entire job. As a parent, I know that it’s impossible to know everything that is going on inside a child’s mind. Teenagers, in particular, can be reluctant to talk to their parents. They want to demonstrate that they’re mature enough to handle problems on their own — even if they’re not. All parents, I hope, make an effort to talk to their kids about the challenges they face and pay close attention to signs of distress. Monitor their social media use and screen time. Keep tabs on their friends. Most important, make certain they know you are available to listen to them, any time of day or night. Even after doing all of those things, it’s not always safe to assume that kids will be all right. I will continue to push to end the stigma placed on conversations about mental health and the need to enhance the mental health services available to our youth. Bringing these concerns out of the shadows and into the spotlight is the first step in building a safer learning environment for all students.