More than a place for grades

More than a place for grades

Photo Credits: ANDREA GONZALEZ / AGGIE

School environments and climates within California schools shapes student mental health and belonging.

Across California, students come to class to engage with topics and concepts that prepare them for their futures. But they also confront their own mental health within their schools and communities.

“According to the California Healthy Kids survey, there has been a decline in school violence, chronic victimization, being threatened or beaten up,’” said Meagan O’Malley, an assistant professor at the California State University, Sacramento School Psychology Program. “School is not an unsafe place to be, but there is an increase in the prevalence of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.”

“Students have insecurities about national events and what is going on in their local communities,” said Michael Furlong, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. “Students are feeling insecure about life in general, they feel jaded about support networks within society.”

Furlong serves as the principal investigator for Project CoVitality, an initiative through the UC Santa Barbara International Center for School Based Youth Development. The research effort comprehensively surveyed the social and emotional health of over 12,000 high school students across California.

“Schools that present safe, secure spaces foster positive psychosocial development within students. For high schools after Parkland, there has been turmoil within communities opening up concerns. At one high school, there was a heightened response following stranger parked in the school parking lot, who removed one of the hoses from the school,” Furlong said. “Students reported this incident to the school, which responded through a lockdown. While the school responded to be a safe place for students, there hasn’t been as much planning on how to respond to trauma. There’s no debriefing of the event. When students go through lockdown procedures, they are broadcasting their real-time reactions on social media to their parents and community, which can also cause trauma. These moments also call attention to how students and communities process these events.”

Project CoVitality found high school students between ninth and twelfth grades who felt safe at school report less anxiety, worry and emotional distress than students who felt unsafe at school.

59 percent of students who felt safe at school indicated they felt community belonging within social groups, the school and their neighborhoods. Only 29 percent of students who felt unsafe at school reported the same.

56 percent of students who felt unsafe at school reported feeling sad and down over the past month, while 30 percent of students who felt safe at school reported the same sentiment. 42 percent of students who felt unsafe at school indicated feeling scared for no good reason over the past month, compared to 17 percent of students who felt safe at school.

“Being exposed to school violence is a risk factor for mental illness, with the more intense and direct exposures being associated with higher rates of challenges, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Stephen Brock, a professor and coordinator of the School Psychology Program in the California State University, Sacramento’s Department of Graduate and Professional Studies in Education. “While it is expected that most people exposed to school violence will not go on to develop mental illness, like PTSD, some do, and this can seriously affect school adjustment and academic functioning.”

Mental health remains stigmatized, either being diminished by some or resulting in the profiling of individuals facing mental health diseases as violent or abnormal by others. In reality, mental health exists as a spectrum of experiences that every person encounters.

A step towards engaging mental health lies in language, using person-person or trauma-informed language, where individuals shift from dehumanizing those facing mental health conditions to relating to them as people.

“For these individuals, natural support systems, like parents, teachers and friends, are important to recovery, but professional mental health treatment, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is also needed,” Brock said.

Written by: Foxy Robinson — science@theaggie.org