The following opinion column originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal.
Indiana’s new high school graduation requirements form a pathway to a diploma through job experiences. They also form a pathway to improved mental health for students.
The guidelines bring us full circle to a time when our society placed a lot of importance on skills, trades, jobs and physical labor as important ways to develop young people and help them find their pathways to healthy, productive lives.
Beginning with the graduating class of 2023, high school students may help themselves graduate through work-based learning, including internships—an overdue change that should generate dividends, intended and otherwise.
It would be a mistake to stigmatize the new work-related pathway as a “track” for underachievers, in contrast with a “college track” for the “smart” kids. Developing a work ethic, social skills and a sense of responsibility on the job is a fundamental and valuable exercise for all young people, whether they go on to become researchers or well-paid and much-needed plumbers.
The value of employment for youth can be counted not only in their maturation, education and career development, but in their mental health, as well. In fact, these work-based options could not have arrived at a better time.
The mental health crisis among teens that was already well underway when COVID-19 came along has grown much worse. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from April to October 2020, the number of mental health emergency-department visits among 12- to 17-year-olds was up 31% nationwide.
Internships, part-time jobs and work-study programs that get teens out of school buildings and engaged with new people and new challenges can, and should, play a powerful role in helping stabilize teens struggling with mental health challenges and, at the same time, contribute to their graduation requirements.
We create paid, part-time internships for teens struggling with mental health at Ben’s Ranch Foundation for the specific purpose of improving their mental health. Now, we realize those same jobs will help our interns graduate and get started on a career path. We have seen firsthand how powerful a job—especially one that requires physical labor—can be for a young person struggling with anxiety or depression.
Studies show a job that requires engagement with animals can be even more powerful. This means Indiana’s agriculture and equine industries can play a big role in helping teens be mentally healthier and preparing them for future jobs by creating more internships for local teens.
A World Health Organization publication supported in part by The Lilly Foundation in 2000 said employment provides five categories of psychological experience that promotes mental well-being: time structure, social contact, collective effort and purpose, social identity, and regular activity.
As we try to address mental health problems, it is truly unfortunate that our labor laws have discouraged most employers from hiring teens younger than 16. There are many safe, responsible and valuable part-time jobs a young person can do before the age of 16, and a closer reading of the law makes it clear that no such prohibition exists.
Employers, workforce-development advocates and policymakers will serve us well to challenge these harmful barriers and create as many jobs for teens in their communities as possible—and fully leverage the power of a job to grow stronger kids.
McVey is the founder and executive director of the not-for-profit Ben’s Ranch Foundation. D’Amico is past executive vice president of the Strada Educational Network and former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.