Adults Supporting Students Struggling with Mental Health
The pandemic has been one of the latest and most disruptive occurrences to shape the mental well-being of people; particularly, young people. A preexisting mental health crisis among teenagers has become increasingly pressing, with schools trying to combat it with counselors, “mental health lessons,” and new language to describe our common humanity. This process has been an uphill battle, and the whirlwind of a pandemic has left many confused about what support of our struggling youths looks like.
Mental health challenges have a way of being dealt with as non-problems; a common stigma about mental health lies in the myth that people have utmost control of their mental wellness and that mental health challenges are a result of personal failures. Whereas, especially after global crises like a pandemic, the weight of mental wellness lies on the backs of entire groups of people united. It becomes the responsibility of leaders to recognize this weight and address it clearly, and allow the group to participate in working towards the solution.
Whether an elected leader, a parent/guardian, an educator, or a community member, adults can adopt an attitude of transparency about it. Now, just to clarify, “transparency” is not oversharing. It is not about getting students to reveal personal details about hardship. Instead, it is about adults explicitly recognizing challenges and making space for problem-solving.
Adult leaders can start conversations and forums about mental health, about establishing boundaries in communication and group social boundaries. Instead of leaving the conversation completely open, adults can actively acknowledge the challenges in those endeavors presented by the pandemic. This makes space for youths who may not be comfortable initiating conversations about their needs, and allows for more honest problem-solving. This can happen differently in two-way conversations with youths versus groups of varying sizes, but some acknowledgement in this way can be incredibly effective.
I have personally noticed that one of the most lingering causes of emotional distress that arose from the pandemic is a sense of social confusion– especially for neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, and disabled students who may have already grown up in an environment with a common theme of social detachment. The pandemic detached students from one another and from what “social normalcy” might look like, which makes socializing feel unsafe. The disruption of a period of intense social development in such a jarring way has worsened pre existing gaps between young people.
Educators can make themselves available for students to communicate about deadlines and workloads that accommodate their needs. Educators can also shape activities and classroom culture to fit the emerging needs of students. For students right now, collaboration can range from incredibly necessary for some to completely triggering for others. And furthermore, there is a particular shame in speaking up while experiencing confusion about what is socially acceptable. Educators should try allowing groups to independently function by providing activities to fuel connection before beginning more high-stakes tasks relying on group collaboration. This may include group discussions; I have particularly noticed that tasks where the students must make an active attempt to communicate with other students in a low-stakes environment are quite helpful.
For example, I participated in an activity where the members were to walk around with two truths and a lie stuck onto their shirts with a Post-It note, and just try to guess what the lie was. It was better than going around in a circle because it allowed the group to get familiar with taking an active role in social collaboration, but it didn’t require small-talk or trying to speak up in a large group, so it was relatively comfortable. We accommodated one student who was still uncomfortable with the activity by letting them participate in the activity next to someone they trusted, and eventually, they ended up continuing on their own.
We finished with a task one step up; a true group discussion. We had older members of the group sit apart from the younger members, and the younger members, already somewhat familiar with the rest of the group, had a safe space to ask questions and be vulnerable about what made them unsure. The older members were so eager to nurture and assist, while the younger members were relieved by the safety they had access to.
Gauging the varying needs of the group and making space for them to assimilate in time is one of the most important ways to show solidarity when the students are coping with the massive weight of social uncertainty.
Adults often seem just as mystified by the mental health of teenagers as we are, in a way. They tell us that they are a safe space for us to come to, and that we are not alone in our struggles. These reassurances are deeply important, however, there is some intangible quality about a safe that makes it truly “safe” that is beyond mere reassurance. It takes time and openness to nurture. The conscious effort to create a safe space with young people instead of for them alone is revolutionary, and a crucial act of solidarity in such a vulnerable moment in history— all trial and error beyond this is to be expected.