5 takeaways from Rider magazine's feature story on children's mental health

With mental health concerns in the classroom on the rise, educators face a perilous moment
Rachel Stengel '14

The latest issue of Rider magazine shed light on the rising need for educators to be trained in mental health. We spoke to three Rider alumni who are educators and an associate professor in Rider's school counseling program to learn more about the state of children's mental health, as well as what educators can do to help children in crisis.

Here are five key takeaways from the story.

1. Mental health concerns are on the rise for children.

Suicide rates in the United States have risen nearly 30 percent since 1999, and mental health conditions are one of several factors contributing to suicide. While recent reports show a slight decline in suicides among 19 to 24-year-olds, what's more sobering is that the rate among 10 to 18-year-olds is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control say one in five children experience a severely debilitating mental disorder.

"There have been so many hospitalizations for suicide ideation. I’ve seen over time that stress levels have gone up in students. There’s a whole epidemic of depression and anxiety," says Dr. Christine Abrahams, supervisor of counseling services at Hopewell Valley Regional School District in New Jersey and adjunct professor in Rider's Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling.

2. There is a culture of competition in some schools that fuels mental health concerns.

Today, college is not a choice but a requirement. A career plan is required by age 17. Being a "B" student is no longer applauded. Kindergartners are expected to be able to read before entering the classroom. Schedules must be filled, first with playdates and then clubs and sports. Leisure time may be nonexistent.

In high-performing school districts, the pressure is accelerated and the thought of failure is crushing.

"We had third-graders testing into our honors math program who were breaking down because they felt like they didn’t do well," says Dr. Shauna Carter '07, principal of Community Middle School in Plainsboro, N.J. "Their definition of what failure is, is different. A 'B' in a high-performing district is failing and that’s just unacceptable. It’s irrational. Now, how do we shift that?"

3. Social media has made the world more accessible for children, but the constant connectivity may be too much for a developing mind.

Social media has particularly altered the way children interact with one another. If a group of friends decides to hang out and exclude others, none would be the wiser 15 years ago. Now, social media dictates that the hangout should be captured and shared with the world. Happy and carefree is the only mood welcome on Instagram and Snapchat.

"Kids are dealing with things other generations didn’t have to deal with in the past. It’s that constant connection that they have to others," says Dr. Karen Gischlar '03, associate professor in Rider's Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling.

"When we start looking at the impact of technology beyond just being a learning tool, it’s detrimental because kids are connected 24/7," she says. "Kids have more access to things that they didn’t in the past. It can make them more informed, but it can also be hurtful. They’re hearing things that they developmentally don’t quite have the ability to make a sound judgment on."

4. Schools are trying to address mental health issues, but the approach differs based upon the school district.

Some schools begin the day with a mindfulness activity or yoga. In the Hopewell School District, students have access to a biofeedback machine that educates them about their emotional reactions. At Community Middle School, Carter's students are encouraged to take a break when things are just too much. She created a wellness center within the school where they can use their Chromebooks to download an app to walk them through a guided meditation or a breathing sequence.

These efforts are in response not only to the evident need for mental health practices within the classroom but also to a movement from the New Jersey Department of Education. In 2017, the Department implemented social/emotional learning competencies, which aim to promote positive school climates.

There is no prescribed way to implement the competencies, rather it is left up to the schools' interpretations.

5. Mental health is everyone's responsibility.

"When we talk about mental health, it is everyone’s responsibility. It's how we help our friends who express that they want to kill themselves on Snapchat. When a child is in crisis, you hope the child goes to the first person they can and that person needs to be able to react appropriately," Carter says.

However, a stigma still prevails among certain groups.

"There's a lot of people who don't want their children labeled," says Karen Abrams '88, '96, a first-grade teacher in the Trenton School District. "Mental health shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing. If a child had an illness, you’d give them medicine. If they have a mental illness, they need help, it’s the same thing. It’s not different. Help could be life changing for the child."

Paying attention is the most basic way to help students in need, Abrams says. Many times, the responsibility falls to those in the school system, teachers, counselors, the school nurse and even other students.

"I tell my teachers all the time, a stressed brain can't learn. It’s about recognizing those changes in behaviors," Carter says. "We want teachers noticing that the jovial kid who’s always saying 'hi' isn’t anymore. We need to create spaces and time within our instructional time for mindfulness. Students' lives may be so regimented that they don’t have the time to create the space on their own to deal with their feelings. We need to let them know that it’s OK not to be OK, to know that you don’t have to do this alone."

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