Johnny, an eighth grader, hasn’t been able to stop fighting all year and tells all who’ll listen that he feels triggered daily, often in non-threatening situations. Marisela, a fourth grader, finds it difficult to keep friends, and is increasingly hard to draw out in class. Lately, she has been showing up only two days each week. Muhammad, in tenth grade, has lost a quarter of his body weight since last year, though his academics have remained on track.
In each of these cases, their teachers are concerned. They know Johnny, Marsiela and Muhammad are far from alone.
For the past few years, schools have wondered what more they can do to meet the outsized emotional needs of their students. In many places, the answer appears to be interventions designed to be universal builders of emotional skills and comfort, often known as social and emotional learning.
But social-emotional learning, or SEL, is not designed to address (diagnose or treat) mental illness, though it may create conditions for noticing and concern. What it can do is play an important role in promoting stronger human development and more responsive school environments.
The pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of education for at least two years: disconnecting children and youth from their peers, their schools and routines, and threatening both safety and healthy development. Two months ago, the Surgeon General of the United States issued a dire warning about an exploding youth mental health crisis, amplified by the pandemic but well underway before 2020. Child and youth emergency room visits and suicide attempts have skyrocketed. School counseling and social workers are overwhelmed. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association declared “a national emergency.” President Biden dedicated ample time in his recent State of the Union address to the crisis, noting severe shortages of available behavioral health providers, and proposing significant expansion of evidence-based community mental health and wraparound services for schools.
The Right Tools for the Job
In the past few years, many schools and districts have begun implementing universal/school-wide social and emotional learning programs, and for good reasons. Abundant evidence, developed over the past 20 years, shows that SEL programs work, particularly evidence-based ones followed with fidelity. They can help students form and manage relationships with peers and adults and establish crucial self-understanding and develop self-management skills for a lifetime. SEL promotes stronger school climates, attendance, belonging, empathy, identity development, cultural relatability, and appreciation of others and of the common good. Transformative SEL, a newer discipline, centers culture and identity, addresses implicit and overt bias, and opens new ways for relationship-centered, culturally responsive teaching and learning. SEL is also directly linked to enhanced academic performance, decreased disciplinary and mental health referrals at schools.
Moreover, with its core focus on self-understanding, SEL helps solidify a crucial aspect of learning: metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking. Metacognition builds familiarity with habitual responses to challenge, stress and adversity, and awareness of individual particular strengths and weaknesses. Metacognition opens up potential to steer consciously toward better personal decisions and outcomes.
The beating heart of effective SEL programs are relationships—and strong relationships undergird stable mental health. An environment well infused with SEL promotes and supports thriving. But there is a limit to what we can reasonably expect from teaching SEL skills, and in some cases they carry wide, perhaps outsized expectations, especially when it comes to treating mental illness, which is distinct from mental health.
SEL and mental illness are not one another’s obverse. Mental health and mental illness occupy distinct categories, reflecting fundamentally different analyses and toolkits. Mental health is often described as successful and steady engagement in productive activities (e.g., work, school, friendships) and healthy relationships (peers, family, extended community). Its hallmarks are an ability to adapt to change, maintaining stable relationships and coping with adversity. These baseline elements of mental health relate well to the capacities promised by SEL.
Mental illness, on the other hand, refers collectively to diagnosable mental disorders. Here the focus is on disturbances to thinking, emotion or behavior—leading often to distress and problems functioning in social, work or family activities. Diagnosable mental disorders are determined by the presence of specific symptom profiles. Anxiety, bipolar, mood or eating disorders, PTSD, OCD and depression are all mental disorders, but they’re notably distinct from one another. All require trained professionals for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.
Addressing Mental Illness
Given our contentious national dialogue about education it is not surprising that SEL has become mired in politics in the past several years, yet it retains strong support among educators. Public thinking about mental illness has always been clouded with stigma, and remains so now. And while increased attention to the mental health crisis during the pandemic has led to greater exposure, worry and hand wringing, it has not yet resulted in meaningful destigmatization.
Making the distinctions between mental wellness and mental illness, and understanding the needs for professional intervention with the latter and the role that can be played universally with SEL, is more important than ever, given the explosion of mental illness needs. According to one American Psychological Association survey, members of Gen Z are more likely to rate their mental health as fair or poor than older generations. Only 45 percent reported their mental health was very good.
Here are quick suggestions, ways that all schools can support young people’s mental health and promote thriving and development, and address mental illness:
- Promote district-wide SEL, offering consistent approaches to human development. Take every opportunity to get to know students deeply and embrace a team approach to caring for all.
- Center belonging and relationships. Every child must have a caring adult to turn to, and all school staff can play a role. Be intentional and make certain every student has an adult looking out for them. Assign and monitor. Dedicate class time to relationship-building.
- Train all school staff in Mental Health First Aid so they know how to identify struggling students or peers and direct them to the help they need. Pay attention to the well-being of adults who care for students, too.
- Measure SEL gains/losses, alongside assessing school climate, using evidence-based tools that offer specific feedback and lead to guidance for improvement.
- Build safe, inclusive communities that reduce reliance on discipline/exclusion. Measure school climate. Act on the data. Attendance and discipline/exclusion are key data points.
- Never underestimate or ignore the need for dedicated in-house mental health/counseling staff. This staff may also contribute to SEL, but must be turned to and capable of identifying, diagnosing and treating mental illness, or referring out to other professionals.
While school and district-wide SEL interventions are almost always positive, these programs are not designed to meet individual mental illness needs. How can we best serve Johnny, Marisela and Muhammad, and all their peers, as they grow up? Schools must fund and manage both SEL and mental illness intentionally and distinctly. Our students deserve no less.