On Dec. 7, 2021, the United States Surgeon General issued an advisory on the youth mental health crisis further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our response: It’s about time! For years, we have seen the ugly impact of this crisis firsthand. Every day, we listen to parents and students as they tell us about debilitating anxiety, the inability to manage and juggle normal everyday stress with coursework and extra-curricular activities and depression that is so severe that those students sometimes confess suicidal ideation. What is worse, we have worked with families who have suffered from the loss of a child. We can tell you that their stories rip your heart out. Many times, we struggle with finding the right words for those families, and we muddle through the process of serving as lawyers and advocates. And, this was all before the pandemic hit.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Mental Health
Did we really think that students could be locked down at home, told that they could contract a deadly disease and have limited social contact with peers, and that there would be no major mental health repercussions? Post-pandemic (if you can even call it that), our office is flooded with cases involving mental health issues, and we understand why these issues are now acute. As adults, we listen and learn about the latest variant and have to fight back fear. We can’t imagine how children, adolescents and young adults can process this frightening information. In fact, from what we hear from our clients, we don’t think that they are managing the influx of scary news.
The quoted statistics by the Surgeon General about mental health challenges are terrifying. More than 1 in 3 students in high school now report persistent feelings of sadness. In 2020, suicide rates have grown. And, to no surprise, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor outcomes in young people. Again, do we really need someone to tell us that students who suffer from mental health challenges have poor outcomes in life?
Mental Health: The Surgeon General’s Recommendations
To be fair, the Surgeon General offered a series of recommendations. Top recommendations include recognizing that mental health is an essential part of overall health; empowering youth and their families to recognize, manage and learn from difficult emotions; ensuring access to competent mental health support; addressing mental health needs for those who might not have the resources to obtain quality care and increasing the timely connection of data on the topic.
Our Mental Health Recommendations
These are all fine recommendations. However, we would like to offer additional solutions, as we see more and more students with mental health issues faced with student misconduct allegations. Our recommendations would include the following:
- Consider educating students on managing conflict and fostering resiliency as early as possible.
- Educate students on how alcohol and drug use can worsen mental issues and discuss the dangers of “self-medicating.”
- Make sure that those students who need medication have access to competent health care providers and educate parents that there is no shame with students taking medications when medically prescribed and supervised.
- When students are involved in student conduct matters, consider offering restorative justice before forcing a student through an adversarial hearing that results in some sort of student discipline.
- Try to limit student’s use of social media and encourage parents to mandate time away from social media and the pressures that it causes students.
- Educate students about the negative impact of “cancel culture” on peers.
- Encourage healthy debate and educate students that open dialogue and disagreements are a normal part of life.
- Discuss and educate parents on how to discuss COVID-19 and other health threats in a way that is realistic and accurate but does not induce panic.
- If there is a death or other health concern in the family, make sure that the students are educated on how to grieve and express fears.
- Try to maintain as normal of a routine and family connection as possible. Recognize that as human beings, we need to feel and experience love with our family and our community. Zoom is just not enough.
We applaud the Surgeon General for finally addressing a major elephant in the room. We agree that we have a national emergency on our hands. But we want to see change fast, as no child or young adult should suffer – especially in silence.
Because of the nature of our work, we have a deep understanding of mental health and neurological disorders, and are experienced in representing individuals with mental health issues. If you or someone you know is in need of representation, reach out to us by calling 216.877.9145 or emailing Susan Stone (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Kristina Supler (email@example.com).