The start of the academic year is a moment of opportunity — not just for kids, but for their school districts, too. And, in the spirit of continuous improvement, many schools are setting their sights on student mental health.
The K-12 mental health crisis
The U.S. has undergone a mental health evolution in recent years. Depression, anxiety, and other conditions are on the rise — especially among children. In fact, researchers from the Health Resources and Services Administration found that anxiety and depression among U.S. kids aged 3-17 have increased over the past five years.
Even before the pandemic, anxiety and depression increased by 27% and 24%, respectively, from 2016 to 2019. By 2020, nearly six million kids had been diagnosed with anxiety and over two million with depression.
A separate study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates a similar trend. In 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.
According to MH National, 15% of youth aged 12-17 reportedly suffered from at least one major depressive episode in 2022. However, 60% of youth with major depression received no mental health treatment. So, although there’s a growing demand for emotional and psychiatric support among the country’s youth, the vast majority of adolescents aren’t receiving it. Without a doubt, this glaring gap is only worsening an already significant national crisis.
The impact of depression
Depression is a very serious mental health problem that causes persistent feelings of sadness and greatly affects how someone thinks, feels, and behaves. Moreover, depression can have a significant, tangible impact on how young people develop emotionally, socially, and academically.
In 2022, researchers found that greater levels of depression accurately predict poor academic achievement in spelling and mathematics. Likewise, depressed students are at greater risk of absenteeism, failing classes, and dropping out.
Most importantly, untreated depression can put a young person’s long-term well-being at risk. The Mayo Clinic says complications related to teen depression include:
- Substance abuse
- Family conflicts
- Relationship difficulties
- Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts
What’s causing child depression?
In most cases, there’s no single underlying root cause for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. More likely, a variety of risk factors contribute to these conditions and allow them to sprout during adolescence. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include:
- Issues that negatively impact self-esteem, such as obesity, peer relationships, long-term bullying, and poor academic performance.
- Having been the victim or witness of violence (both physical and sexual).
- Having other mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder or anxiety.
- Having a learning disability or hyperactivity disorder.
- Ongoing chronic pain or physical illness.
- Abusing alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs.
Although there’s no silver bullet, there are other social and societal forces that can trigger and worsen mental illness — most notably, cyberbullying.
The role of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is exactly what it sounds like: using electronic communication — such as email, instant messaging, and social media — to harass someone over the internet. Much like its traditional counterpart, cyberbullying is a toxic behavior that can threaten its intended target’s physical and emotional well-being. Now, with the rise of digital technology, online bullying is exceedingly common.
Pew Research Center claims that nearly half of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. More specifically, they’ve experienced at least one of six bullying behaviors, which include
- Offensive name-calling (32%)
- Spreading of false rumors about them (22%)
- Receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for (17%)
- Constantly being asked where they are, what they’re doing, or who they’re with by someone other than a parent/guardian (15%)
- Physical threats (10%)
- Having explicit images of them shared without their consent (7%)
Altogether, 28% of teens say they’ve experienced multiple types of cyberbullying — not just one. And, much like depression, victimization can have lasting effects into adulthood.
According to a survey of adolescents and young adults over three years, cyberbullying victimization increased from 3.8% to 6.4% among female respondents and 1.9% to 5.6% among males. About 33% of females and 16.6% of males had depressive symptoms in their young adulthood. Nearly 7.5% of females, compared to 2.3% of males, reported seriously considering attempting suicide in the past year. Given these results, the researcher came to a grim conclusion:
“Adolescents who experienced cyberbullying victimization were 2.07 times more likely to have depressive symptoms compared to those who did not experience cyberbullying victimization. Similarly, adolescents who experienced cyberbullying victimization were 2.50 times more likely to have suicidal ideation than their counterparts with no experience of cyberbullying victimization.”
It’ll come as no surprise that cyberbullying victimization is linked to the amount of time someone spends online. In fact, Pew Research Center’s survey supports this connection. As their data suggests, teens who say they’re almost constantly online are not only more likely to have been cyberbullied, but are also more likely to have experienced multiple forms of online abuse.
So, although bullying existed long before the internet, the rise of smartphones and social media have exponentially increased its prevalence. Social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok have created “a new and more public arena” for bullying to spread its toxic wings.
The role of social media
Does social media cause cyberbullying and depression? Not exactly, but it certainly doesn’t help.
According to a study by the University of Georgia, higher social media addiction scores and more hours spent online significantly predicted cyberbullying perpetration in adolescents. So, not only does an overactive online presence increase your chances of being bullied, it can also raise the odds a child becomes the bully themselves.
Bottom line: American kids are stuck in a vicious cycle. With toxicity just a few clicks away, social media and other digital channels are providing an onramp for cyberbullying and harassment — and with that, greater levels of depression.
Of course, today’s youth are digital natives. It’s unrealistic to think that restricting internet access can curb student depression. However, schools can still use effective strategies to erase toxic behavior and steer mental health in the right direction (both online and off).
How can school districts protect mental health?
U.S. adolescents spend over 95% of their daily lives at school. That means academic environments are at the forefront of youth development and should therefore take responsibility for student mental health and well-being.
Admittedly, managing child depression is a daunting task. Fortunately, there are several tactics your school district can use to make a meaningful difference:
Know the signs of depression
Teachers and staff members are on the frontlines of the nation’s mental health crisis. They’re in a unique position to spot at-risk kids before it’s too late, which is why it’s important to teach staff how to recognize depression.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, depressive indicators include:
- Behavioral problems
- Changes in eating habits
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Lack of interest in fun activities
- Low energy levels or general fatigue
- Irritability and mood swings
Provide mental health resources to students
It’s not easy for children to ask for help, especially when it comes to their mental health. Many don’t know where to seek guidance or even if there’s any available in the first place. Unfortunately, many districts lack adequate resources and are unable to provide support.
That’s where community programs can greatly assist. Schools can set up referral systems and awareness campaigns to encourage students to reach out and get the help they need. Grant programs also help schools acquire the funding they need for a full-time (or at least part-time) mental health professional.
Create an anonymous reporting system
Students may be reluctant to speak up when they witness or experience bullying. They fear retribution, being labeled a tattle-tale, and other social consequences.
Establishing and promoting anonymous reporting mechanisms can help students feel more comfortable coming forward.
Encourage communication and open dialogue
Discussing mental health early on in a child’s development enables them to speak more comfortably and openly about their feelings down the road. By addressing struggles and the emotions all people deal with, your district can foster a more positive, accepting school climate.
Filter out toxicity and harmful content
You may not be able to prevent cyberbullying and depression completely, but you can take measures to stop the spread of toxic behavior. For example, content filtering solutions can be used to block and restrict internet access. That means you can set policies that determine which content types are allowed, thereby filtering out any website that doesn’t meet your standards.
This prevents students from accessing content that could potentially be harmful to their emotional well-being, such as graphic violence, sexual imagery, and other triggers. You can also block access to social media, thus minimizing a major cyberbullying channel.
Monitor cloud behavior to identify at-risk students
Did you know that the way students use cloud applications can be indicative of their mental health? Take Google Workspace, for example. It’s not uncommon for kids to write their feelings in a school-provided Google Doc or share their struggles over Gmail. Sadly, students also use these tools to harass others and spread hateful content around their district.
Monitoring tools like ManagedMethods’ Cloud Monitor shine a light on these unseen incidents, affording you a chance to detect potential risks and intervene at a moment’s notice. When Cloud Monitor identifies a safety signal, such as a child who’s experiencing suicidal ideation, you’ll be alerted of the event with all the details you need to investigate. If it’s deemed a legitimate concern, you can implement the appropriate next steps and give the student in question the help they deserve.
Start your school year on the right track
Worried about your students’ mental health and well-being? It’s okay — we’re here to help. Check out our back-to-school technology guide to learn more about keeping students safe in the upcoming school year.