Many teenagers have been exposed to traumatic events, and most experience regular life stressors. Exposure to violence and other traumatic experiences can have a lifelong effect on learning and may negatively impact academic achievement. Among examples of traumatic events that some teenagers experience are community violence, school shootings, the loss of a loved one due to death, parental incarceration, divorcing parents, a parent or caregiver with mental illness, and substance abuse in the home. Within the school setting, the negative influence of trauma on teens may lead to poor concentration, declining academic performance, school absenteeism, and the decision to drop out. These challenges create barriers for the success of teens in the academic setting.
Schools across the United States have recognized the importance of providing school-based mental health support because these services benefit students academically, socially and emotionally. However, questions regarding the issues facing teens and the types of mental health supports needed to deal with these issues require further examination. Implementing a needs assessment can assist schools in uncovering the answer to these questions. The findings can then help determine what programming should be implemented to improve students’ overall development, such as teaching them social skills to help them become productive members of their communities and school settings.
We wanted to learn more about the social, emotional and mental health needs of teenagers, so we conducted a needs assessment in which we surveyed 198 high school students in a Midwestern city. The teens in our study identified the types of emotionally stressful experiences they have faced since attending high school. They also described what schools could do to make them feel supported and better able to deal with the related challenges.
The following sections present the five top issues identified by the students we surveyed, along with recommendations on ways that schools can support teenagers socially, emotionally and mentally.
1) Social media makes peer pressure a 24/7 problem. Teens today are confronting certain pressures that teens in the past didn’t face. A prime example: Social media has become an indispensable part of teenagers’ lives. According to a 2018 report written for the Pew Research Center by Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among those ages 13-17, and most teens have access to these apps on their smartphones. Anderson and Jiang note in the report that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, with 45% of teens acknowledging that they are online “almost constantly.”
This constant mobile connection creates the conditions for teenagers to consistently be exposed to peer pressure even outside of the school environment. Mina Park and colleagues in 2017, in a journal article in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, noted that hyperconnectivity to social media can also lead to depression, negative body image and eating disorders.
What schools can do to help: Teens must be given an outlet to discuss their frustrations when it comes to dealing with peer pressure. Students should be directed to their school counselors or other trusted adults in the school with whom they can share their feelings and pressures and get supportive, confidential advice in return. It is also helpful to allow for genuine conversations in the classroom about the importance of students being confident in who they are and embracing their differences. Safe spaces in schools allow teens opportunities to feel supported in a neutral environment, to accept who they are, and to embrace differences among their peers.
2) Bullying is a significant issue. Peer pressure is not the only problem arising from constant social media access. The other, and even more troubling, issue is bullying. Teens may experience, witness or engage in bullying situations, including cyberbullying, which is more prevalent among teens.
The Bullying Statistics website (bullyingstatistics.org) notes that cyberbullying may consist of teens sending cruel messages, spreading gossip or posting threatening messages on social media platforms, pretending to be someone else on a social media account, or sexting. According to recent statistics from the website, more than 25% of teenagers have been exposed to cyberbullying situations that have had a negative impact on them. Bullying can have a significant effect on teens socially, emotionally and academically. Some of the negative impacts include depression, anxiety, attendance problems, and decrease in academic achievement. However, many teens who experience cyberbullying do not tell their parents or guardians about these painful experiences.
What schools can do to help: October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and many schools across the United States take time to develop effective strategies to raise awareness about bullying and to prevent bullying incidents on their campuses. It is important for schools to create an environment in which victims of bullying/cyberbullying, or teens who witness the bullying of a peer, can talk to trusted adults about bullying situations. Help your students by providing safe places in schools where teens can disclose when they or their peers are being bullied, or even create a hotline for students to report bullying situations.
Additionally, offer professional development to teachers and other staff members on identifying the warning signs of bullying, and provide them with effective strategies to help students who are being bullied. Likewise, many parents are unaware of how to support their teens when they are being bullied, so invite parents to on-campus workshops where they can learn ways to address these issues with their teens. During the parent and family sessions, discuss the various types of bullying that take place, the warning signs of bullying, and school and community resources for victims of bullying and cyberbullying. Workshops for parents and families can add another layer of support for young people who are affected by bullying.
3) Students are concerned about their personal safety. In our study, the third top concern that students reported was anxiety about their personal safety. According to the National Institute of Justice, school safety is currently a common concern among educators and administrators across the United States. Teens may not feel safe in their schools because of gun violence on school campuses across the country or even violence in their own communities or neighborhoods. The National Institute of Justice has stated that more schools have increased their security measures to protect students. Many of these schools have instituted locked doors, security cameras, hallway supervision, controlled building access, metal detectors and locker checks.
More than half of the ninth- and 10th-graders and more than 70% of the 11th- and 12th-graders we surveyed reported that they had experienced a traumatic event while attending high school. These various traumatic events can cause students to feel concern about their overall safety in their schools and communities. This type of stressor can in turn affect how teens engage in their educational environments.
What schools can do to help: Trauma-informed methods must be put in place to support students and their overall safety. Trauma-informed approaches focus on ways to ensure that students feel supported, listened to, and safe. Among the trauma-informed approaches that counselors can create in their schools are to build trust and rapport with students and to collaborate with outside community resources to support students who have been exposed to traumatic events. By getting to know your students, you will notice when their behaviors change, and because you have built trust with them, you can approach them in a friendly way to address these changes.
In addition, provide training on trauma-informed methods for teachers, support staff and administrators at your school. This training will help them create resources aimed at the needs of teens. Additionally, educators can seek professional help for their own personal traumas so that they may better interact with students who are dealing with stressors. By ensuring that teachers and staff members have access to community resources and training about personal safety and trauma, schools are developing leaders who can help students socially, emotionally and academically.
4) Students need help coping with their emotions. Teens’ emotions run rampant during their high school years. Most experience a range of emotions, including anger, fear, frustration, disappointment and hurt. These emotions may mask some of the broader issues that students face and that ultimately affect their academic performance.
Some of the students in our study participated in a small group that focused on developing social skills. The single-gender support group addressed the students’ academic, social and emotional needs. The sessions offered teens a safe place to identify stressors in their lives and to discuss the emotions attached to those stressors. By talking about their emotions, students were able to identify yet other emotions that were hiding underneath their anger and aggression. Throughout this process, the teens learned how to effectively articulate their emotions and to identify the underlying factors that were fueling them.
What schools can do to help: Encourage a supportive environment and training for students, such as small support groups facilitated by school counselors, clinical counselors, school psychologists or social workers, as well as peer-to-peer support groups. Teach teens the proper social skills related to identifying their emotions, and explain that all emotions are OK to have.
Quite often, teenagers express only the basic emotions when talking to others, especially adults. However, challenging them to look deeper and to identify the true emotion can be effective. Teens need safe places at school where they can learn how to cope with their anger and the other uncomfortable emotions that they often face.
5) Dealing with grief is important. A final concern students reported centered on dealing with grief from the loss of a loved one. Those students in our study who had experienced the loss of a loved one or who had witnessed a friend going through such a loss reported needing a supportive outlet to deal with those losses. Students may experience various losses during their teen years, such as the death of a friend or family member, and they are often left to process their emotions about the loss on their own. If schools are unaware that students have experienced a loss, those students may go without the support that is needed to help them process their grief. A lack of support during this time can have a significant impact on teens succeeding within the academic setting.
What schools can do to help: Build rapport early in the year with students so that they will be comfortable sharing should they experience a loss. During times of loss, allow students to grieve. Provide additional assistance by forming support groups for students who have experienced loss. This type of support can be offered through collaboration with local counseling agencies, hospices or other entities that support families experiencing loss. It is also helpful to maintain a list of community resources that address grief and loss. This community resource guide can be shared with teens, parents or caregivers, and other stakeholders.
Transforming school into an emotionally responsive environment
Students who are well-equipped socially, emotionally and mentally at the beginning of their academic careers can better cope when hardships occur. As counselors, we can help our students succeed in school and in life by first learning to identify their social, emotional and mental health needs, and then providing resources such as social skills workshops and support groups for them. Additionally, we can lead by example by improving our own social, emotional and mental health through professional development workshops that emphasize social and emotional learning practices.
Remember, school is not just a place where students gain academic knowledge; it is where they prepare for life. By doing our part to create a safe and emotionally supportive environment, we can increase the odds that students will succeed beyond the walls of the classroom.
Dakota King-White is an assistant professor in counselor education at Cleveland State University. Prior to that, she worked in K-12 education as a school counselor, mental health therapist and administrator. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sade Vega is a student in health science at Cleveland State University. In 2018, she received the university’s undergraduate student research award for her research on assessing the social, emotional and mental health needs of high school students. Contact her at email@example.com.
Nicholas Petty is the director of undergraduate inclusive excellence at Cleveland State University. Prior to working at the university, he was an administrator in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where he earned national attention for his innovative approaches to behavioral intervention and student motivation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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