Back to School: Mental health and well-being of our students – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Public focus on the issue of mental health and well-being of students has been on the rise. Many educators are concerned about the growing problem of anxiety, depression, and students struggling with suicidal thoughts. In one recent mental health survey, almost four in five teachers (78 percent) have seen their students struggling with mental health problems or issues in the past year. We already know that many students from elementary to high school levels experience stress at school. The question we should all be asking is “Why?” Knowing what is causing our students’ stress at school is the first step toward helping them overcome it. If we can figure out how to help our students better manage stressors, this will allow them to perform at their fullest potential in a healthier manner.

Dr. Marian Kim Phelps Courtesy photo

In an effort to gather input from our school community for our Local Control Accountability Plan, we surveyed students, staff, parents, and community members, utilizing our new “Thoughtexchange” engagement platform. We were interested to find out what our stakeholders considered to be the priorities and desired focus of our work as we continue to support all students. Of the 10,000 survey participants, over 1,200 of the respondents were PUSD high school students. As staff and I reviewed some of the top comments shared by our students, we discovered that indeed, our students are experiencing stress and the mental health and well-being of our students is of increasing concern.

Some of the comments shared by our students include:

“Students need more sleep. Many people are staying up past 12 o’clock working on homework or studying for tests and they need at least 8 hours.”

“Focus more on students’ mental health. Many students are struggling with stress and sleep deprivation and just telling students to ‘remember to get sleep’ doesn’t work.”

“Make sure that students aren’t overloaded. Students have other activities [other] than school to focus on.”

“Help reduce stress in students. Stress is harming students mentally, and for some, even physically. Reducing stress would improve everyone’s health.”

The survey responses from our own students show that in a high-achieving school district like ours, where success is the norm and expectation, students are feeling pretty overwhelmed by the pressures of homework, tests, getting top grades, balancing extracurricular activities and studying, getting into college, and managing their social lives both in person and online. Not to mention our students who might experience a significant life change or crisis in their home lives, such as a major move or new environment, death in the family, or divorce, which causes even higher spikes in stress levels.

Katie Wu, Westview English teacher and San Diego County Teacher of the Year, recently gave a keynote address at our District Recognition Dinner. She grew up as an English learner, in a poverty-stricken, first-generation immigrant family. Yet, she recalled, how none of her teachers or administrators knew about all of the stressful situations she was experiencing at home, including not having enough food to eat or clothes to wear. Now, in her role as PUSD’s Youth in Transition coordinator, she meets with families in our district living in hotels, renting a room from another family, or living in their car. Yes, PUSD serves nearly 200 homeless students, and you can bet being homeless affects a student’s ability to learn!

As educators, when is the last time we considered whether our students are getting enough sleep, whether they might be hungry, whether they have a strong support system, whether they need additional mental health resources, or whether something might be going on at home that is affecting their performance at school? As parents, when is the last time we asked our child – not about their test score or grade in a class – but about how they’re actually doing and what might be stressing them out in their lives?

We should be helping young people develop self-awareness and coping skills as well as organization, prioritization, and time management skills, which are all essential skills for their adult lives. We need to care about the whole child. Our goal should not be solely focused on creating students who can succeed academically, only to struggle mentally or emotionally as adults. I am encouraged to see the increasing work in our district and schools with addressing student stress, including through counselors and school-sanctioned stress relief events during finals and A.P. tests. And at the district level, a committee is currently tackling the topic of meaningful homework, not just busywork.

We still have a lot of work to do in addressing student wellness, but we will continue to seek resources and ways to address this growing concern with our students. But in the meantime, let’s all recognize that student stress is a very real and multi-faceted problem, and we must work together to help reduce it.

Phelps is the PUSD superintendent.

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