The tragedies keep piling up, here and across the country. Yet despite the long-term decline in young people’s mental health that prompted the US Surgeon General to declare a crisis last December, little attention has been paid to the underlying causes of this growing national epidemic.
Instead, the problem was solved by hiring mental health providers to diagnose and treat symptoms without paying much attention to identifying underlying causes – a key consideration in solving the problem. Band-aids instead of solutions.
Moreover, all efforts to examine the causes focus primarily on the characteristics of the young people themselves rather than their environment – one which the surgeon general has identified as posing unprecedented and particularly difficult challenges even before the pandemic. of COVID. Moreover, while it’s easy to blame social media, research shows that it amplified but not created these challenges.
From our perspective as educators and as parents, one of the primary sources of the mental health crisis among our nation’s youth is the hyper-competitive race for individual achievement that characterizes their environment. school and is integrated at all levels of our education system. This pathological system is what we need to fix rather than the students who suffer ever increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and tragic deaths from suicide and drug overdose because of it.
The school became a gladiatorial arena focused on advancement through narrow, extrinsic measures of academic, athletic, and extracurricular achievement. Intrinsic student interests and learning for fun have become obsolete. And parents and educators feel they have little choice but to help young people compete in this dysfunctional system. No wonder our young people are suffering from a mental health crisis – they lack a nurturing and supportive education system to guide them to healthy and fulfilling adult lives.
Our education system has a negative impact on students at all levels. Those at the bottom face a lifetime of limited options. Middle school students compete for the jobs of the disappearing middle class. Even those who make it to the elite ranks feel the pain – the competition never ends.
Instead of the school preparing the students for life, the students’ lives become a school of endless competition in which every situation can seem like a matter of life or death. This system generates chronic stress, which neuroscience research has shown can have profoundly negative effects on adolescent brain development and long-term emotional well-being.
Moreover, the system increases young people’s unhealthy tendency to focus on themselves and robs them of unstructured, unpressured time to just be kids – to relax, explore different activities, relationships and ways of being neural remodeling that is believed to occur during adolescence to increase emotion regulation and higher-order thinking.
The system also harms society by creating and demoralizing so-called “losers,” causing many to feel humiliated, develop strong grievances, and embrace right-wing populism that “hears their pain” and vents their resentments. This outcome has helped produce our country’s largest political divide since the civil war and puts our democracy in great danger.
Our country is at an inflection point. The COVID pandemic has both amplified the staggering decline in young people’s mental health and brought to light the hidden costs of perpetual and intense competition for achievement. It has also created a huge opportunity to redesign our education system for the benefit of students, educators and society as a whole.
We firmly believe that we must all act now to fuel a movement demanding systemic reform of the educational institution. To do otherwise would be to turn a blind eye to the serious harm being done to the mental health of our young people and to the future of our country.
David Labaree is a sociologist and professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Deborah Malizia is a lawyer/mediator who studies mediation training as an approach to increasing the emotional well-being of lawyers and young people.
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