By: Sara Israelsen-Hartley

June 20, 2018

WASHINGTON — For years, Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, has been asking people — especially teens — how they feel.

In one survey of more than 22,000 high schoolers, 75 percent of the responses were negative, while only 2 percent were neutral.

“Tired, bored, stressed — that’s how high school students feel,” Brackett said Friday during the annual Mental Health America conference in Washington, D.C. “How many of you feel that’s a recipe for mental health, innovation, creativity, achieving purpose and passion and having your dreams come true?”

Today’s schools are increasingly filled with anxious, depressed students and teachers on the verge of burnout and breakdown, say Brackett and other experts, leading many districts and educational associations to list mental health as their number one concern.

“Schools are the de facto pediatric mental health associations in this country,” said Chelsea Prax, senior associate of the American Federation of Teachers’ Children’s Health, Safety and Well-Being Program. “All of us need to ask ourselves if we’re comfortable with that.”

Where kids are

Experts know that 1 in 5 youth experience mental illness and that half of lifelong mental illnesses begin by age 14.

School psychologist Christina Ramirez sees those struggles every day in her Chicago-area high school.

In the last three school years, she’s seen the number of hospitalizations for mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, substance abuse and anorexia jump from 24 to 39 to 63 — and that was just through February of this year.

Some of these problems stem from, or mask, early childhood trauma, whether through abuse, neglect or household dysfunction, like having a parent die or get divorced, seeing neighborhood violence, living with someone on drugs or simply scraping by financially, among others.

These adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, can have life-long impacts, and the more ACEs a child has, the higher the risk emotional and behavioral problems, said Christina Bethell, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative.

For preschoolers who have already dealt with something traumatic, 18 percent had a hard time making and keeping friends, compared with 10 percent of kids who had no ACEs.

Even one ACE makes it harder for kids to calm down, control their temper, stay focused and finish tasks, compared to kids who haven’t experienced an adverse event, Bethell said.

By ages 6 and 7 years old, more than three-quarters of kids with zero ACEs are “definitely engaged” in school, compared to just 58 percent of kids with one ACE, according to her research.

“Where can we impact these children’s lives and adolescents’ lives the most?” asks Sarah Davidon, research director of Mental Health Colorado. Davidon and her team kept coming back to schools, and recently released a “School Mental Health Toolkit,” filled with evidenced-based programs and best practices to help schools feel better equipped to help students.

Impact on teachers

Despite listing mental health as a top concern, fewer than 1 in 5 school officials said their school was prepared to meet those needs, according to a 2015 survey by the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union group.

It’s not that schools aren’t trying — there’s a growing push to teach social-emotional learning — but it’s often a patchwork approach, or dependent on a handful of energetic teachers, rather than fully incorporated into the curriculum, experts say.

Which means many teachers know they’re on the front lines of children’s mental health treatment, but lack the training, resources, pay and connections to do what they’d like to do for children, Prax said.

Because of this, a large majority of educators say their work is “always” or “often” stressful — double the rate of other workers. And more than half of teachers reported they are less enthusiastic about their job now than when they started, according to the survey.

Prax has even heard from teachers who admit they’re considering leaving the classroom and becoming a psychologist, because “that’s what my kids need more than what I do.”

When Yale’s Brackett asked teachers to describe how they feel at work, their top word was “frustrated.”

“In essence, our education system is killing our teachers,” he said. “We have to really think about carefully, what are we doing to support our nation’s teachers, so they take better care of themselves?”

Prax recommends teachers get more robust training — not just 60 minutes once a year on depression, but in-depth, nuanced discussions about a host of mental health challenges.

Prax also encourages that any mental health initiative in school includes teachers too — “folks who are facing the burden of other people’s not-so-wellness,” she said.

Working toward wellness

Instead of getting stuck on the distressing numbers, Bethell likes to focus on flourishing, or the idea that kids can be resilient amid their difficulties, and that “history is not destiny,” she says.

When Bethell and other experts study children, they can identify flourishing through three main categories: motivation, resilience and attention.

Kids who are flourishing are curious, they can use skills to remain calm in the face of daily challenges, and when they start something, they can finish it.

If kids can develop those skills — no matter what their ACEs are — they’ll be OK, she says.

In fact, kids with ACEs who can stay calm in the face of stress are three times more likely to be in school than their ACEs-peers who have no resilience training.

And the biggest way to build that resilience is by developing healthy relationships, especially with parents.

“How we connect is really a public health issue,” she says.

When parents sit down for meals with their child, read to them, meet their children’s friends and participate in family activities, kids do better.

In fact, 64 percent of kids who share ideas “very well” with parents demonstrate resilience, and even for kids with two or more ACEs, 49 percent of healthy talkers are still resilient, according to Bethell’s research.

“It’s a good story,” she said. “It means there’s a lot of hope.”

Prax’s favorite mental health screening tool is the question “How many people love you?” The higher the number, the better off a student tends to be.

Brackett said he got into the work because of an uncle who loved him, listened to his 13-year-old feelings, reminded him that “emotions were not permanent” and offered him strategies.

To help other kids do the same, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence developed the RULER program, to help students “recognize, understand, label, express and regulate” emotions.”

And this means getting very specific, even “granular” with how we describe our feelings, Brackett says.

“Anger is not just anger, there’s peeved, irritated, then angry,” he said. “Same thing goes for our anxiety family. Think about that, are you uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, panicked?”

Even sadness becomes more nuanced as feelings of “down,” “sad,” “disappointed,” “hopeless” or “despairing.” Brackett asked the audience to imagine the benefits if students were taught to seek help when feeling disappointed, rather than waiting until the dark end of despair.

Through helps like the MoodMeter app, kids increase their emotional vocabulary, and as their emotional intelligence goes up, a host of negative behaviors go down, including aggression, hyperactivity, substance abuse, social deviance and anxiety and depression, said Brackett.

“Everyone needs to learn about these skills,” he said. “If we don’t know how we’re feeling, if we can’t label our feelings, how do we know how to support (someone)?”

Originally appeared in Deseret News.