I don’t think there’s any doubt that there needs to be country-wide reform in schools to make the development of mental illness more rare among high school students, as well as providing more resources for students that are struggling. I know I’m not a professional and don’t really know what I’m talking about here, so I must stress that this section is based on my opinion; what I list below isn’t professionally and scientifically tested, but rather things that I do think could help.
Place Greater Emphasis on Mental Health Education
At my high school, mental health education was virtually nonexistent. The mandatory health class that all students had to take at my school hardly touched on mental illness; we spent one week at most on the topic and were barely tested on that knowledge. Watching the Cyberbully movie that came out in 2011 was considered to be “substantial education” on the topic by my teacher. My AP Psychology class wasn’t any help, either. Sure, I learned about a broad list of mental illnesses and what their symptoms look like, but that’s about it. What’s more, psychology classes were totally optional, and not many people went out of their way to take these classes.
When I first started feeling depressed before my diagnosis with MDD in 2017, I had no idea where to go or how to handle my morose thoughts because I was never taught about these things. I felt like I was the only one with these thoughts, just as countless other kids do.
So, what can be done? This would require useful funding, which the government doesn’t seem to be a big fan of, but schools can implement short (i.e., one semester) classes that equip kids with knowledge about common psychiatric disorders, how they can be managed, and how to help others through their illnesses. Teenagers are not always excited at the prospect of turning to adults for help, so equipping them with tools to help themselves and others more effectively could be massively beneficial — I know it would have been for me. Additionally, making mental health and psychology classes more common might make more kids interested in psychology and encourage them to pursue the subject, leading to crucial developments in our understanding of the brain and abnormal psychology.
Starting a National Trend of Reducing Homework Loads
One of the most common sources of stress for students is homework. Many high school students are given levels of homework that can rival those of college students’, with brains that are severely underdeveloped to handle such strenuous workloads. Naturally, feeling so inundated with homework on top of other possibilities can be completely debilitating, which is exactly what happened to me. Of course, it’s important that students are taught how to manage time, but loading them with mindless busywork that can take hours a day is a major contributor to anxious and depressive thoughts.
What I noticed during high school is that giving students a long time to get assignments done allows for much more flexibility and still lets students learn to manage time. Students can work a bit each day on these extended assignments and, assuming they are not unreasonably long assignments, finish them by the due date and still have time for fun.
It is also important to assign very minimal amounts of homework on weekends and over holiday breaks. Students need time to relax and enjoy weekends and any breaks they can get. It makes sense that sometimes homework must be assigned over the weekend, but there should be a general shift in the nation towards an emphasis on allowing students time to rest.
I feel that it is important to note that while individual teachers can take on reduced homework loads, that generally isn’t enough. Students having only one or two teachers that don’t assign much homework is helpful, but probably not enough. If there is a national step towards reducing homework loads and making high school less demanding across the country, then we can better ensure that this is a trend that continues for generations.
Offer More Opportunities for Students to Find Subjects They Enjoy
This is a suggestion that will absolutely require government assistance; public schools cannot do this on their own. What this idea entails is expanding schools so they offer more diverse classes, similarly to the broad range of subjects that many colleges allow students to explore and major in.
Students go through high school trying to survive their general requirements, such as mathematics, English, history, science, and maybe a foreign language and civics. While it is true that many students can find a passion within these topics, many cannot, and those students are then sent to college without any real idea of what they want to study or pursue for a career. Subjects such as psychology, sociology, computer science, engineering, and anatomy are all good examples of interesting classes that students might be drawn to. If students have classes they enjoy mixed in with the more basic, mundane classes, then school might just become a lot more enjoyable. Personally, I had a really difficult senior year, but my psychology class made me excited to go to school every single day and made me happy, so I really want to see that for other students.
I also want to connect this idea with my last idea. If homework loads are reduced, students may feel much more comfortable with adding another class to their schedule because they have more free time. It doesn’t matter if schools add more diverse classes if students feel too overwhelmed to add to their schedules.
Ensure That Social Media Stays Friendly
This point may be a bit of a slippery slope, but I do think it is important. There is a lot of unseen toxicity on social media, and sometimes even outright fighting or cyberbullying. My high school had a student-run “confessions” page, for example, which was essentially just a way for students to gossip anonymously. Of course, no one wanted to be the “snitch” and tell the school that the posts from the account were awful and completely degrading, so the account stayed up for years and posted regularly until someone finally made the school aware.
How do we combat the this toxicity on social media without making students feel like they have no privacy? I believe the simple answer is a general moderation of student’s social media accounts, checking comments to make sure students aren’t being bullied or posting concerning material that might indicate a student is suffering from mental illness. If students know that gossip and bullying is not welcome and being monitored, it might prevent accounts like the “confessions” page at my school from spawning. The toxicity on social media is draining and greatly contributes to anxious and depressive thoughts, so minimizing it should contribute to the betterment of students’ mental health.
Emphasizing Helping the Student Instead of Punishing Them
The reward and punishment system of American schooling is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. Students are largely taught to do homework, read, and study because they get rewarded for doing those things well (by receiving a good grade), or they get punished (by receiving a bad grade). On the surface, this makes sense and has worked for a very long time; however, there is certainly an issue with how quickly students are punished. Students can get punished simply because they don’t understand a topic no matter how hard they try to understand the material, creating a spiral where students are unmotivated to work because they know they will be punished no matter what. To avoid such a depressing spiral, schools must emphasize aiding the students and helping them learn the material, rather than punishing them and assuming they are not willing to put in the work to succeed. By implementing a new system where students are given more chances to prove themselves or receive one-on-one help, there is no doubt that students would feel more confident in their abilities and therefore much less stressed and depressed over school.
Although the changes I listed are unlikely, they can be made into a reality if we made them into a core issue. We can pressure our governmental representatives to initiate these changes, and elect officials who are dedicated to improving the lives of underrepresented voices in society, like high school students. Together, we can begin to prevent thousands upon thousands of cases of anxiety and depression from forming. It won’t be easy, but if we want to collectively emphasize the important of mental health, schools are a great place to start.