Boots in the trenches
As nationwide incidences of teenage suicide continue to rise, districts are slowly acknowledging the urgent need for SEL (social and emotional learning). While schools have historically paid lip service to a whole child educational approach, the time has come for mere words from lips to become boots in the trenches, advocating and fighting for the mental and emotional well-being of our students. You can’t solve an inside problem with an outside approach.
I recently read an article about several Arizona school districts who’ve chosen to address this pressing need by assigning more counselors to middle and high schools. The article didn’t stipulate as to what type of counseling would be provided, but regardless of the counselor’s specific role, many would argue that it’s a step in the right direction.
While I’m in agreement that an influx of trained counselors in our schools certainly can’t hurt, I don’t think it’s a viable solution to the teenage suicide epidemic. Unless the counselors are actually going into classrooms and sharing SEL disciplines (tools and strategies) with all students, it’s simply a short-term solution to a longer-term problem. A Band-Aid approach, if you will.
The mental health stigma affects the pre-teen/teenage demographic more than any other. In an effort to avoid various mental health labels, students often resort to masking any mental or emotional turmoil they may be experiencing. If you ask them how they are, the classic response is, “I’m fine.” Furthermore, the excessive use of social media greatly exacerbates the aforementioned masking dilemma. You’d be hard pressed to find a teenage social media user who doesn’t filter pictures as a means of looking good, despite perhaps not feeling good.
Back to the counseling solution. If you notify a middle school or high school student that a trained counselor is available to talk, I don’t know too many that will volunteer to do so. While there are countless students who could benefit from one on one counseling, the mental health stigma would serve as a major boundary for this type of service. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, looking good often trumps feeling good, especially for boys.
While I’m clearly biased given the work I do, I’ll always advocate for social and emotional learning to be a part of every classroom curriculum, regardless of age. When you make SEL part of the entire classroom, not an individual visit to a counselor’s office, you create a safe space for kids to take off the collective masks. Put another way, you make it cool (acceptable) to talk about something that’s perceived to be uncool, or weak. As someone who’s visited hundreds of classrooms over the last 10 years, I can assure you that mental health barriers can be destroyed in the matter of a single lesson. A stigma can be quickly replaced with a willingness to openly discuss thoughts and feelings. The result is a collective vulnerability, which leaves students with a firm understanding that they’re not alone in their struggles.
Unfortunately, countless young people are suffering in silence. If you simply observed their body language, you wouldn’t necessarily see any of the classic signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges. In fact, you might even see bright smiles and confident dispositions. This is what makes it so difficult to address these issues using an a la carte menu of prevention techniques. True prevention happens in the safe, comfortable environment of their classroom.
I will continue to advocate that every child has access to social and emotional learning opportunities.
What are your thoughts?
P.S. This is not meant to be a knock on school counselors. They do wonderful work. My intention was to address the way in which school districts are choosing to use counselors.