When I think back to being a teenager, the major themes in my life included friends, being boy-crazy, and playing sports. I thought I knew it all, much to my parents’ and teachers’ dismay. Little did I know back then that my adolescent brain was wired for this. There were biological and chemical reasons for my emotional ups and downs, my intense focus on relationships, my mini-rebellions, and my ability to quickly learn facts, figures, and a powerful batting stance.
On the surface, it appears the main roles of adolescents are to do well in school, become independent while driving the adults in their lives crazy, and to learn how to function in relationship with peers. Under the surface though, particularly within their thick skulls, is a complex forming system that, in the best of conditions, will contribute to quick learning, impulsivity, high emotions, and pleasure seeking. Add chronic unpredictable stress to the mix, though, and a very different map can form—paving the way to increased vulnerability for mental illness, substance misuse/dependence, self-harm, physical disease progression over the life span, and early death.
Due to increasing social problems like poverty and addiction, too many of our youth are experiencing the kind of chronic stress that will interrupt healthy development both mentally and physically. According to the 2017 Children’s Mental Health Report (CMHR), published by Child Mind Institute, when we understand adolescent development and the potential risk factors that can contribute to mental health problems and high-risk behaviors, we can be more equipped to guide them in identifying their strengths and struggles, and help them develop the skills for life success. The best way to begin is to start where they are—working with families and schools where they spend most of their time.
There is a growing tribe of mental health professionals in our local communities who work within school settings to help identify and intervene on behalf of at-risk youth and families, and I am fortunate to be among them.
Mental health services in local schools may include: assessing for trauma, mental illness, or high-risk substance use behaviors; analyzing behavior patterns and developing treatment plans; working in small groups to learn and practice social and emotional regulation and coping skills; crisis intervention and assessments for risk of harm to self and/or others; and helping to create trauma-sensitive learning environments and teaming up with teachers and administrators to improve school climate and culture with positive behavior support.
There are also efforts to develop or connect students to after-school programs and community mentors. This is important work that all begins with the building of relationships and the recognition of the inherent worth of a child—with determination to find a way to help them and their families connect to necessary resources that will help them thrive.
If you are a parent or community member who supports or works with youth, consider checking out the CMHR to learn more about how to help youth navigate the risks of mental health disorders, substance misuse, overuse of social media, and what the evidence is showing about approaches and interventions that can make a big difference in helping our youth succeed.
Wendy is a social worker (Project Aware) at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County (WV).