While student well-being continues to be attacked when couched as social-emotional learning (SEL), student need remains ever-complex and fluid. Even prior to Covid-19, the National Education Association (NEA) identified the epidemic of anxiety among high school and college students, calling it the “mental health tsunami of their generation.”
Many wonder how to adequately address the needs of today’s children in and out of the school environment. The good news is that initiatives are finally advancing to thwart the growing swell of mental health issues.
Federal and State Initiatives
The Hechinger Report points to an April Institute of Education Sciences survey, indicating that 70% of public schools have seen increased mental health services sought by students. In addition, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory warning of a youth mental health crisis last December, stating, “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. An alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade.”
Federal solution efforts are underway at the national level with the U.S. Department of Education’s new mental health guidance measures and newly developed congressional bills that encourage colleges to work with community organizations on mental health and suicide.
At the state level, special provisions are taking place for school psychiatrist hires in North Carolina and even crisis lifelines and student identification cards in Texas. However, despite all the positive initiatives, some community stakeholders find that the initiatives infringe on parental rights and over-tax already overloaded educators. For instance, a Connecticut school board made headlines by rejecting a mental health clinic for a high school.
Still, outside organizations continue to steam ahead, building a greater consensus between the broader community and schools to bolster student well-being and self-esteem.
The nonprofit, Understood, believes that positive self-esteem for students is vital for young people to fully access the opportunities school offers. Failure, a popular topic across American society, has been an active topic across the education industry, examining the role it plays in the development of students.
Who is there to provide intervention options remains a tug of war between the associated responsibilities of parents and the schools their children attend.
Dr. Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education and the co-founder of Challenge Success, believes communities want solutions. Her organization works with schools and families to develop research-based strategies that provide kids with the academic, social and emotional skills needed to succeed.
“People are finally seeing what negative stress does to the body, what that does to the psyche, and what it does to school engagement,” explains Pope. “Schools and communities know stress is a problem and want solutions.”
Vanderbilt University has a department dedicated to student health and well-being, proactively providing a ‘holistic’ network of resources to support students on campus. The Center for Student Wellbeing offers regular workshops and practices to help students in the long term. The university has found success through one-on-one coaching to support multiple facets of college life, academically, socially, and personally.
The challenges of meaningful health and well-being states of students are not isolated to schools in the U.S. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which most notably is home to the PISA results ‘scoring’ the world’s education systems, has continuously examined students’ social and emotional states. An expanded view from the OECD draws parameters inclusive of contextual (education policies, diversity, global issues, trends, etc.) and proximal sources (family, teachers, household resources) impacting students’ well-being.
With all the efforts at play, one might ask, are there alternatives or fresh approaches that could add to the acceleration of positive results? Sometimes it takes a concerted shifting of perspective to recognize that today’s youth may be suffering from an external focus that saps their self-worth and connection to an inner fortitude that can drive them to a better state of fulfillment.
Ranbir Puar, TEDx speaker, author, coach, and mother, expresses the need to create independence in young people, establishing a sense of self that can better withstand the uncertainties of life. After a successful but unfulfilling career in business development for the financial software sector, Puar felt compelled to contribute beyond the trappings of corporate life.
Puar, the fifth daughter from a small village in India, struggled to experience or understand self-worth in her life.
A chance encounter with famed author Wayne Dyer set off a series of experiences leading Puar to embrace her passion for speaking on behalf of the youngest and most impressionable generations.
Puar’s TEDx talk has been seen by hundreds of thousands, indicating a desire for more information and the opportunity to engage by those who have followed her work. She has channeled her efforts into teachings that have reached millions through writings and work with Pinterest, securing over 30 million impressions of her teachings.
Those efforts led to the development of an app that reached number 4 in the Apple App Store upon launch, remaining in the top 10 for over a week. The ‘Today I Practice’ life strategies app works under the premise that we can apply realistic approaches to life stressors. She has taught in inner-city schools and more affluent environments and recognizes that an unrealistic outside focus lies at the heart of unwellness.
“As a kid, we start off in tune with ourselves, and then there is a separation of the self as we move further and further away from our true identity and nature, adapting to what we think society wants from us,” says Puar. “The work I do is to walk you back to your authenticity, as trite as that sounds, to be a contributor the way you’re meant to be. If you’re not living in reality, it’s constant denial and mental unrest, which I believe creates mental health issues.”
Puar continues, “You can have all the money in the world and still have deep unrest, sick anxiety, depression, and mental health issues because you’re chasing [a false] dream.”
Countering a world increasingly steeped in self-help doctrines that set up failure at the onset of manifestation goals, Puar provides a realistic, practical approach that builds on the authenticity of self. “My philosophy is when you look at reality, if your feet are on solid ground, you have a foundation. So let’s build from there.”
Environmental stressors ignore school thresholds extending worry into classrooms, buses and the homes of American students. Adaptations and additions to curriculum, with programmatic changes and increased professional development for teachers, illustrate the market-acknowledgment that young people face new and incredibly complex challenges.
A child of relative means from a small village in India represents a growing, collective voice aiming for connection with self and others to combat the throes of self-doubt and anxiety.
Ranbir Puar’s efforts go beyond a mother concerned for her children, demonstrating the power and impact one person can make to support the realities of so many.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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