Not too long ago, if an adolescent began to experience a mental health crisis at school, a parent — or the police — would be called, and the next stop was often the emergency room and the psychiatric ward. Problem solved.
Today, an estimated 25% to 50% of teens struggle with some form of mental health issue. These range from the effects of trauma to depression and anxiety disorders, gender identity issues, eating disorders and more severe forms of mental illness.
The most obvious signs of this epidemic are the increasing number of teen suicides — second most common killer of youth — and overdoses among youth. But the much higher number of cases of nearly invisible depression, anxiety and other forms of mental health disorders is easy to underestimate.
The sheer numbers of students affected, and the wide range of symptoms, necessitate that today’s educators must address this tsunami at school. New mental health staff, onsite counselors, medical providers from large health systems and a variety of social services are now common in schools who can find and afford them.
At the same time K-12 schools confront this new challenge, they continue to play other social roles such as feeding children who may not find nutritious diets at home. Add on constantly changing education policies and funding, and you have a problem. Stretching schools further will not reverse the mental health epidemic, nor will more traditional medical care alone. We must add innovation.
Fortunately, recent changes in K-12 education funding and policy may open the door to an approach which serves both the mental health and careers of affected students.
Ideally, we can employ work and project-based learning, technical and career development programs, physical education and participation in 4-H into a highly-coordinated new mental health strategy. Our organization, Ben’s Ranch Foundation, is working to create these opportunities on farms, at stables and at agribusinesses for students struggling with mental and emotional health challenges.
There is a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that physical labor and activity contributes to improved mental health. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published by the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services makes clear that “ … physical activity also has brain health benefits for school-aged children, including improved cognition and reduced symptoms of depression.” Other sources link exposure to nature and animals with improved mental health.
We are starting to see some schools embrace elements of this new approach.
Students at Providence Cristo Rey High School spend one day each week at work with an employer. The new Pursuit Institute in Hamilton County offers students rich agriculture coursework at sites like Conner Prairie and top agribusinesses. Students in the Crossing School of Business and Entrepreneurship manage and provide the labor for school-created businesses.
An effective strategy to reverse the mental health crisis among our youth will require more focus on root causes and prevention, educational delivery systems and expectations, and much greater use of non-traditional programs leveraging nature, physical work and animal interaction.
Our young people are depending on it.