What is the first thing that parents consider in a good school for their kids? SAT scores? AP classes? The percentage of graduates that get into good colleges?
Actually, it’s safety. This includes school fights, bullying, and other forms of violence, but also the school culture around things like racial diversity and mental health. There is no one school environment that can fit all kids, but a more negative school environment can cause lifelong consequences to children’s mental health.
This is relevant given the rising rates of adolescent suicides. From 2007 to 2015, the suicide rate for males 15 – 19 years old increased by 31% to 14.2 per 100,000, and the rate for females 15-19 years old doubled from 2.4 to 5.1 per 100,000 – the highest it’s been since 1975. Furthermore, these suicides seem to occur most during the spring and fall – that is, while school is in session – and declines in the summer, when school is out.
Worse yet, it’s hard to predict who is at risk. They range from the budding pre-teen being bullied at school, to the straight-A basketball jock from an elite high school. Whoever they may be, they have peers who probably never would have imagined that someone they walked the halls with, sat next to in class, or asked about a homework assignment would be there one day, and be gone the next. It is becoming the norm for students to know personally of someone who has taken his or her own life, or at least has seriously considered it.
One possible solution to this is school choice. That is, parents and children make their own choice in the school they attend, rather than restrict them to the closest school to them. A recent one-of-its-kind national study looking at the effects of school choice on mental health showed that there was a reduction in teen suicides in states introducing voucher-based programs and charter schools, which gave families more choices of which schools to attend.
The study further suggested that those who attended private school were less likely over time to have a mental disorder as adults. Previous other studies have shown charter or private schools to have less incidences of bullying and disciplinary action and more respectful behavior, which has positive effects on mental health. Others suggest some students fare better in large public schools. A national survey from 2003 showed that minorities with family problems were more likely to use or threaten to use weapons in private school than those in public school, for example. The problem of needing to fit all students in one rigid mold can be reduced if families were informed of the different schools around them and the unique school cultures they foster, and if they were given the resources to help them make their school choice.
Of course, making diverse schooling opportunities available does not happen overnight, although the thought of linking schools to mental health is not new. Still, the issue of mental health in schools has been considered a “hidden crisis” – a pressing, devastating issue, but one that is still working towards gaining awareness among society, and so progress has been slow. Every step counts, and we can take ours by keeping the conversation going.
What is the culture in your school like? If you had a choice to do it over, would you choose a different school? What are some of the challenges you face at school, and how do you cope with them? What are some of the things you like about your school? Share your thoughts and experiences below!
This SOVA blog post was based off Erika Sanzi’s article from Forbes, “Supporting Educational Freedom Is One Way to Show We Care About Mental Health and Teen Suicide.” To access the original post, check it out here.