A Conversation with the School Mental Health Resource and Training Center
In honor of mental health awareness month, we reached out to the Mental Health Association of New York to get some idea of best practices around supporting youth mental health in all settings. Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation with Amy Molloy, Project Director for the School Mental Health Resource and Training Center, around supporting youth mental health, protective factors, and creating positive environments.
SEL Center: When we think about mental health as a necessary concern of young people, why is it important to pay attention?
Amy Molloy: If we just look at the research and statistics, this is something that impacts so many kids. Often the statistics that are cited look at things like the rates of severe mental illness or mental illness within the past year, but when we think more broadly about young people, the statistics show that approximately half of students at some point during their school career, or by the time they’re 18, will have dealt with some kind of mental health challenge. This is, I think, very common. Of course there are those that meet the criteria for a disorder, and then there’s that every day stress and anxiety that’s just sort of universal. In some ways, that’s becoming a little more prevalent. There’s a whole host of reasons why that is: some of it being social media, some of it being things like bullying or pressure to perform at a high level. There are so many things that impact student’s emotional wellbeing on a daily basis that affect their ability to live and grow, build relationships, and attend to those activities of daily living. It’s something that is so important to their development.
Mental health and wellness, from the perspective of “how do I keep myself well” is not something we’ve traditionally talked about. We teach kids how to stay healthy from getting the flu, or we teach them skills like how to tie their shoes, but are we really teaching them things like “how to do you maintain your own wellness, how do you express your feelings, how do you identify and label your feelings, how do you build supportive relationships”? That’s stuff that we really need to be attending to, just as much as we need to attend to education and academics. We call it mental health literacy.
SEL Center: Do you think that the awareness of youth mental health has shifted in recent years? Are youth experiencing more mental health issues, or are we as a society just talking about it more?
Amy Molloy: The research seems to suggest that there are greater incidences and the prevalence rates of mental health disorders are increasing. So whether or not it’s that we are getting better at diagnosing or recognizing, we can’t really say. But at the same time, we’re also seeing rates of mental health disorders happening at a younger age. That seems to suggest that it’s becoming more common and really affecting students at a younger age. There’s probably some element that we see it more because we’re talking about it more, but the research really is beginning to suggest there is a greater risk for mental health disorders among students.
SEL Center: What might some protective factors be for shoring up students’ mental health?
Amy Molloy: Resiliency is a big one. There’s been a lot of conversation in the field around this concept of resilience and have we entered, as a culture, this state where we sort of smooth away the rough edges of things they experience so they can focus on other things. We want to make things easy for them so that kids can have it better than we had, or more opportunities than we had, and in the process, as educators and as parents, are we kind of smoothing the way and hoping to make things better for students, but they haven’t built those resilience skills.
Are we inadvertently, in trying to protect them, take care of them, make things good for them, are we forgetting the importance of teaching them how to be disappointed, how to not be successful, how to bounce back from those challenges. Have we, inadvertently, taken away those opportunities to build resilience?
Research also suggests that students will identify one trusted adult as being a particular protective factor. Oftentimes, that one trusted adult is at school. So relationships are key, they’re very very important, and for many kids that relationship is someone at school. And it’s not always the obvious person we might think of like their teacher or counselor! It could be the bus driver, the hall monitor, a coach. So building those connections, ensuring that students have one trusted adult is key.
Finally, managing self-care is important. Having those conversations around managing every day stress, what you do for enjoyment, how you decompress? Recognizing that it’s going to be different for every student.
SEL Center: Is there anything adults can do to create environments where students feel like they can ask for help or have access to resources?
Amy Molloy: I think one of the things we have to do first is ensure adults are viewing mental health in the same way we want our students to view mental health. So with the mental health education law, we really recommended a public health approach. So we’re not just teaching students about mental health, we’re teaching staff and families about mental health. In many cases, it’s not something we’ve grown up talking about, so we want to promote this climate that mental health is important and it’s something we can talk about. That helps it become a safe environment to share and be open, but that means adults have to be comfortable too, so there’s a little bit of work we need to do to get there.
Instilling all of those opportunities to practice wellness strategies is also huge. Allowing students to take a break if they need it, use earbuds if listening to music would be helpful, giving them the chance to get up and walk around if they need to talk a break. Just being flexible and giving students the chance to identify ‘what is it that I need to maintain my wellness, my focus, my energy, my motivation’, and giving them the tools to do that.