In the spring of 2020, the United States and the world as we knew it changed forever. However, as we wait to know the full consequences of such dramatic and global transformations in our way of life, there are systemic issues, which existed before the pandemic, which have been exacerbated by the crisis.
Before the pandemic, suicide rates among people aged 10 to 24 had been steadily increasing for more than 10 years. The University of California at Davis Health reports that the suicide rate among those aged 10 to 24 increased by almost 60% between 2007 and 2018. The Centers for Disease Control reported that suicide was the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34 in 2018..
Youth suicide rates were alarming even before the crisis, but the situation worsened considerably during the pandemic. NBC News correspondent David Li wrote that emergency room visits for teenage suicide attempts jumped 22.3% for potential suicides of children aged 12 to 17.
In Colorado, the situation looked even worse. The Colorado Sun reported in September 2021 that in May, the Colorado Children’s Hospital declared a “state of emergency in pediatric mental health” because its emergency rooms were filled with suicidal children. The Sun also reported that suicide was the leading, rather than the second leading cause of death among Colorado teens for several years.
The northeastern Colorado region was particularly hard hit, prompting Bobby Jones, a youth advocate and consultant for public schools, to offer his peer mentoring program at schools in Merino, Fleming and Peetz. The Logan County Department of Social Services helps fund the programs.
Jones has spent the past seven years working in schools across the country, teaching students the merit of responsible mental health practices. When he started, as he moved from school to school, he noticed patterns in student behavior.
âIt was very unusual, the number of children who were looking for solutions from me,â he said. âThey found me on social media and told me everything that was going on in their life. “
Jones knew, based on the information the students shared with him, that these students were desperate for a listening ear and help in their lives.
“There was just no room for these kids to work on their stuff,” he said.
The education system had neither the resources nor the margin to deal with the heavy burden of student mental health needs. After recognizing both a great need and limited resources, Jones set to work to try to fill the void for educators and administrators.
âI’ve always been a solver,â Jones said. âI’m approaching a whole person, not a flawed person. I am there for them, I sit with them, I listen to them, they can trust me.
The workload of staff and educators is endless and offers little or no time to meet the emotional needs of so many students. As an outsider Jones said he had the flexibility to be a supporter and a listening ear and said he was amazed at the positive response he was getting from students because someone one actually takes the time to sit, talk and listen. Due to building trust through attention and care, Jones says students then open up and receive guidance.
Jones said there is a difference between what he sees in the day-to-day lives of students and the distressing statistics faced by policymakers, administrators and mental health professionals.
âThey have so much in front of them and they don’t know what is true and what is not. They constantly struggle to understand “where am I landing?”
âI actually see less trauma,â he said, âI know it’s there. But I only see the struggle with everyday life. Even the little things, the things that should be normal things that they should be able to go through, they just can’t do it.
According to Jones, trauma is not the predominant source inducing the crisis; rather, it is a lack of emotional resilience and emotional intelligence that causes normal daily struggles to a point of crisis in their life. He highlights how bad social media platforms can be for young minds. Jones defines the social media âhighlight reelâ as a critical issue.
âEveryone is posting the beautiful thing and everyone’s life seems desirable but theirs,â Jones said. “Any other life is a better life than mine.”
But the constant comparison and never measuring yourself isn’t the only problem with social media. The vast amount of information with which students are bombarded is constantly overwhelming.
âThink about it,â Jones said, âthey have to wake up every morning and have 100 different things to believe in, or maybe more. They’ve got so much in front of them and they don’t know what’s real and what which is not. They constantly struggle to understand “where do I end up?”
The onslaught of information, as well as the struggle with unrealistic social media comparison fuels, never stops for most students. They have access to the platforms almost all day, every day, and even the rules against use provide minimal respite. Social media isn’t going away, and neither are students.
When discussing both problems and possible solutions with different professionals invested in solving the mental health crisis, Jones explains that he always asks this question: âAre we ready to do something different; Are we ready to change what we’ve always done and move on to something that maybe, just maybe, can get us where we’ve never been? “
According to Jones, the education system needs to be restructured to prepare young minds for the new challenges of modern life. It means a reversal at the most basic and fundamental levels. Research shows that students under stress, emotional strain, or any form of distracted emotion are less able to learn and perform for their educators. Jones promotes a new vision of education where maturity and emotional development are the priority, with testable intelligence as a secondary goal. If education shifts from a focus on intellectual intelligence to a focus, primarily, on emotional intelligence, students will be equipped with the skills they need to navigate modern life and achieve successful intellectual development.
The shift in focus on mental health is an adjustment for many, but students respond steadily and thrive in the changes. Jones explains that he seeks buy-in not only from the administration, but also from teachers, students and, eventually, the community.
âThen you will start to see the culture change,â he said.
Jones and his group of pioneering schools hope not only to bring sanity and safety back to a overwhelmed and injured community, but also to be an example of the positive results that a radical restructuring is bringing to other institutions across the country.
It is clear that for Jones and many other education professionals, helping students with emotional needs can no longer be a luxury for some schools or students, or a passive part of the education system. The crisis demands attention; the next generation, our future, is at stake.
Jackie Bradley is Assistant Professor of English at Casper College in Casper, Wyo.