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Early Mental Health Issues Can Create Lifelong Challenges for Learners

Students in demanding high schools show signs of excessive stress at ever increasing rates, according to a recent study.


The study, which was published in Frontiers in Psychology, was covered by The AtlanticResearchers explored the behaviors of students at two elite East Coast high schools. A total of 128 students and educators were surveyed about student anxiety levels and methods of coping. 


“They found that 49 percent of students reported feeling ‘a great deal of stress’ on a daily basis,” the article states. “Half reported doing three or more hours of homework per night, and 26 percent noted that they had been diagnosed with depression—over four times the national average of 6 percent.” 


The study also showed 38 percent of students surveyed coped with alcohol without consequences, with older studies matching the results in the schools’ low-income counterparts. 


When does it start? Before the child enters their first classroom. 


“Through a tool called the Early Development Inventory, that was completed just two years ago, and in just a few kindergartens across [Connecticut], very surprisingly and very distressing, we learned only about a third of kindergarteners are deemed ready for school in terms of their socio-emotional competence,” said Dr. Lisa Honigfeld, vice president for health initiatives at the Child Health and Development Institute in Connecticut on an October 20 airing of NPR-affiliate WNPR’s Where We Live program.


“And fewer than half are really have the fine motor skills to do school tasks. So that is pretty distressing, especially because we know from older studies that socio-emotional delays in kindergarten have impeded success, and it certainly seems that things are not getting better.” 


Honigfeld said that the trend continues through life, and often lagging in kindergarten leads to lasting mental health problems, “so it really does behoove us to address these problems early, really before kindergarten, so they show up in kindergarten ready to learn. 


Meanwhile, some K-12 schools in low-income areas are actively seeking solutions. Through the past decade, more major cities, from Los Angeles to New York, are incorporating meditation programs into their schools to help combat the effects of combined stresses, such as poverty, neglect, job demands, and other factors, according to another report from The Atlantic


“One principal told me his students rush to and from school to avoid getting jumped or shot. All of this stress can put kids’ minds and bodies on high alert, making them fidgety and uneasy,” the article said. 


It also highlighted a 2014 paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, which said the stress was like “revving a car engine for hours every day. This wear and tear increases the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness later in life.”


A program that covers in-school meditation called Quiet Time has proven to be popular. 


Quoting an article from The San Francisco Chronicle by a UC Berkeley public policy professor, The Atlantic pointed out that in Visitacion Valley “In the first year of Quiet Time, the number of suspensions fell by 45 percent. Within four years, the suspension rate was among the lowest in the city. Daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, well above the citywide average. Grade point averages improved markedly.” 


The program is also often infused with staff professional development and personal time, and is becoming as essential in schools that have implemented the Quiet Time program to educators as it has students in terms of optimizing productivity while reducing stress.  


Some anxiety, however, can be a positive factor in a student’s life. 


A new study, “Is Math Anxiety Always Bad for Math Learning? The Role of Math Motivation,” shows that small to moderate amount of anxiety can actually help certain students excel beyond their perceived potentials, leading to them realizing their full potentials. 


Researchers studied 262 sets of twins at the beginning of adolescence, asking them to gauge their anxiety versus their motivation in the subject area of math. Unmotivated kids did worse when given math problems by the researchers, while those that said they were motivated that suffered varying levels of success. Students suffering from high and low anxiety excelled less when questioned over those with moderate levels of anxiety.


With students experiencing moderate anxiety performing best, the study argues that some stress can actually produce the best results, countering many impressions of anxiety and its outcomes. 


Representations of mental health, and what constitutes as being in a “healthy” mental state are everywhere, but as information about trauma, anxiety disorders, chemical imbalances and other afflictions spreads faster than ever, we’re seeing a societal shift in perspective on how to deal with these difficult issues, especially in K-12 schools across the nation. 


A New York Comic-Con panel called “A Force for Good: The Powerful Partnership Between Mental Health and Pop Culture” covered how media representations of mental health effect youth, and influence behaviors amongst the masses, last month.


One panelist, comedian and nonprofit organizer Jenny Jaffe of CollegeHumor and Project UROK, specially pinpointed how young students and teens absorb media influences rapidly, commenting that it plays out in all areas of their lives, including education. 


“I’m also a person who’s lived with mental illness, and I’m also a person who consumes media, like probably too much media…what I think the media has a responsibility to do, what I think the media can do, is it can reflect to us the world it wishes to create. And I think with pop culture especially, and with stories that are consumed by young people, the media has a tremendous amount of responsibility not just to represent mental illness, but to try and handle it in a way that you would handle the story of any other ordinary human being,” said Jaffe during the panel. 


Moderated by attorney Jeff Trexler of The Beat and The Comics Journal, the panel brought their expertise in mental health and pop culture to the forefront of many issues of how both representation and outreach to those dealing with mental health issues. 


“Mental illness doesn’t look like a sad black and white episode where it’s like, somebody staying in bed all day, and like, staring out the window. Sometimes, that’s what it feels like,” said Jaffe. 



Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

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