Second Step® Insights

Adolescent Mental Wellness in Crisis

May 29, 2024 | By: The Second Step® Team

This blog is a recap of a webinar, “Adolescent Mental Wellness in Crisis: What Can High Schools Do?” with Dr. Jane Choi, a senior research scientist at Committee for Children.

You’ve probably seen the headlines, and if you’re an educator, you’ve probably seen the reality up close: adolescents are struggling, and schools are struggling to support them.

In February 2023, the Centers for Disease Control released the “Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011–2021,” which provided the most recent 10-year trends on health behaviors and experiences among high school students in the U.S. According to the report, 60% of female teens, 52% of LGBTQ+ teens, and 30% of male teens reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the last year.

Positively framing adolescent development
From a neuroscientific perspective, adolescent brains are still developing. Rather than framing teens as “broken” or wrong, it’s more useful—and more accurate—to view them and their brains as highly malleable and changing.

In short, teens are in a period of dramatic development. This can seem scary, especially when we can see that they are struggling. But it’s also exciting and hopeful. Adolescents may be more susceptible to risk factors like depression and anxiety, but they also may be more open to positive developments.

Hearing from educators: The challenges
Committee for Children recently conducted a focus group study of over 30 middle school educators across the country to better understand what educators are witnessing in adolescent students and how they are trying to support their mental wellness in schools.

Many educators noted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent effects. One educator said that, “There was more trauma than anyone cares to admit after the pandemic,” and that many of the environmental factors created by the pandemic haven’t been addressed. Another noted that they’d seen more fights in the past year than in 11 previous years in the profession—from one fight in 11 years to 50 fights in one year.

These are significant challenges, but just as adolescence is a time of possibility amid dramatic changes, the challenges present an opportunity for educators to prioritize student mental wellness and to practice strategies that support them.

While educators may not be able to control the environment for adolescents outside of schools, they can help support their students’ wellness by creating safe, welcoming, and positive learning environments, for example, by:

  1. Helping students feel like school is a place they belong
  2. Helping students feel like school is a place where they can grow and be successful
  3. Helping students recognize their own strengths and the strengths of others in their school
  4. Helping students foster positive feelings and a sense of connection with one another and their school

For specific practices to create a safe, welcoming, and positive learning environment, you can watch the full webinar here.

These strategies depend on a community-wide commitment to fostering a supportive environment. This extends beyond individual classrooms and even beyond individual school communities. Of course, these strategies take time to effectively put into place and even longer to see positive results.

In our focus group with educators across the country, we found that many schools are already prioritizing making their schools as warm, welcoming, and positive as possible. While this can be an uphill climb, it’s a vital strategy to supporting the mental wellness of adolescent students.