Youth mental health challenges have been on the rise over the past several years, however the ongoing pandemic has added a renewed sense of urgency. Adolescents were already feeling isolated prior to the pandemic and this only increased beginning in March 2020. We know that the number of ER visits for young people experiencing suicidal thoughts or self-harm increased between April 2020 and October 2020. Other factors contributing to the struggles young people are facing include increased pressure to perform academically and socially, social media influences, bullying and stigma.
While rates of suicide have increasingly been on the rise among young people since 2009, suicides among teens did NOT increase during the first year of the pandemic, when the strictest lockdowns were in place. However, an increase was recorded with the return to school during the second year of the pandemic, with the numbers back to where they were prior to the lockdowns. We know now that our youth need more than a “return to normal”.
On December 7, 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory highlighting the mental health challenges that youth are facing. While the advisory includes suggestions at an individual level, Surgeon General Murthy examines the systems and institutions that impact young people, including schools. Schools play an important role in the daily lives of youth, and ensuring that proper mental health education and support are in place can provide a solid base for students who might be struggling and/or peers who might be able to help recognize it.
“Surgeon General’s Advisories are public statements that call the American people’s attention to a public health issue and provide recommendations for how it should be addressed. Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that need the American people’s immediate attention.” (HHS.gov).
Unfortunately, many barriers, one of which is stigma, are in place that prevent young people from getting the help they need. In an interview with NPR, Surgeon General Murthy said “That stigma is so powerful still around mental health, something I experienced as a young person who struggled with mental health. I didn’t know that I could ask for help. And I was ashamed. But we’re also calling for expanded access to mental health care, for increases in mental health counselors in schools and investments in social-emotional learning curricula in schools, as well as, finally, for parents to – for people to invest in relationships in their life, recognizing that it is our relationships with one another… that are some of our most powerful buffers to stress and greatest supports for our mental health and well-being.”
The need for mental health education in schools is becoming more apparent than ever; but to make a greater impact, break down barriers and implement a change in school culture, it takes more than just classroom education. Erika’s Lighthouse operates on four pillars that can help fulfill this need: Classroom Education, Teen Empowerment, Staff Policy & Development, and Family Engagement. These pillars are for building inclusive school communities around mental health and are based on the following tenets:
- Focus on universal prevention, education and awareness
- Proactive about mental health messaging and help-seeking
- Empower teens through peer-led campaigns and stigma reduction
- Focus on school policies, professional development, staff culture and self-care
- Engage families in student learning and mental health awareness
- Promote interconnected, multi-disciplinary collaboration and implementation
Erika’s Lighthouse was founded on the idea of promoting inclusive school cultures around mental health. Schools are the place where children and adolescents spend most of their day; therefore, it is imperative that schools provide full and well-rounded mental health education for their students. Taking that a step further, if schools are able to incorporate teen empowerment efforts, family engagement programs and staff development along with the classroom education, the potential impact on the school community would be positive and inclusive.
The ongoing crisis surrounding youth mental health will take the effort of several different aspects of society, not just individuals and families. Erika’s Lighthouse is doing what we do best, empowering individuals and organizations to take action. Here we highlight the recommendations from the Surgeon General’s Advisory that most resonate with the Erika’s Lighthouse offerings.
EMPOWERING SOCIETY – “We Can Take Action”
Each and every one of us can have a role in supporting the mental health and well-being of our youth. By making an effort from all lenses of society, from the home to schools to larger organizations, we can ensure that all children understand the importance of taking care of their mental health.
“Recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.”
The Erika’s Lighthouse vision is for everyone to recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health. By starting with our youth, we can raise a new generation that has open, honest dialogue about mental health. Erika’s Lighthouse classroom education programs directly address this point. Starting with the Level I program, students in grades 4-6 learn about the importance of mental health. The emphasis is that mental health is just as important as physical health, and students have the opportunity to explore what that means. Further, Erika’s Lighthouse has partnered with The Daily Mile to provide schools the opportunity to combine physical activity with mental health exercises.
“Empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.”
At its core, Erika’s Lighthouse wants to empower youth and the people around them to take charge of their mental health. Education and empowerment are key tenets of Erika’s Lighthouse, as we truly believe that by providing the tools for people to recognize and manage their mental health, we can help break down the stigma around mental health challenges. Erika’s Lighthouse has resources for young people and their families that help build a vocabulary for talking about challenging topics and develop depression literacy. This allows families to learn to effectively talk about mental health and youth can know how to ask for help if they are concerned about themselves or a friend.
“Ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care.”
As noted in the Advisory, “It’s particularly important to intervene early, so that emerging symptoms don’t turn into crises.” Implementing Tier 1 universal mental health education programs in schools can help identify students in need and lead to earlier intervention – helping students before they find themselves in a mental health crisis. The Erika’s Lighthouse programs offer videos, curriculum and materials in both English and Spanish. These resources are free of charge and are intended to reach all students, allowing any community access to these high-quality materials.
“Support the mental health of children and youth in educational, community, and childcare settings.”
Providing upstream mental health education and building positive environments in educational, community and childcare settings can help build mentally healthy children. As a society, we can take action to ensure that the mental health needs of all children are supported. Erika’s Lighthouse also offers out-of-school resources through the Shine Light on Depression partnership, which provides opportunities for youth empowerment, youth education and family engagement.
EMPOWERING YOUTH – “What Young People Can Do”
Given the right tools, teens can change the world. The Teen Empowerment pillar offers youth the opportunity to make an impact in their schools and communities. Erika’s Lighthouse Teen Empowerment Clubs are good mental health clubs to educate students, reduce stigma, spread empathy and develop a culture of good mental health in schools. Additionally, the Teen Empowerment programs offer Awareness into Action Activities, which give youth tools and resources to lead activities in their school building to promote good mental health and encourage supportive school environments.
“Remember that mental health challenges are real, common, and treatable.”
We know that depression is common. Five kids in a class of twenty-five will likely experience depression before adulthood. By educating about mental health challenges, schools can allow their students to take those tools and resources learned from a depression education program and build a culture of inclusion that encourages help-seeking for all. When youth learn that mental health challenges, especially something like depression, are common, yet treatable, they will start to learn that they are not alone and help is available.
“Ask for help.”
Students learn that asking for help is OK. The Erika’s Lighthouse classroom programs are made up of lesson plans based around teaching the skill of help-seeking, which allows students to practice how to ask for help, identify who they can go to for help and establish the primary talking points. The goal of our skills-based programs is for students to not only seek help immediately if they are experiencing a mental health issue, but to retain those skills so those experiencing depression or other mental health issues in 6 months or 2 years can still seek the help they need. The programs align with the National Health Education Standards, allowing students to practice real-life application of skills in the classroom.
“Invest in healthy relationships.”
Identifying trusted adults is a key objective of Erika’s Lighthouse classroom education. Students in all programs across grades 4-12 are asked to think about who in their life is a trusted adult and someone they can turn to in the event they need help. Letting students know that it is OK to ask for help is a reminder that no one has to be alone in their depression and help is available. In all three levels of our classroom programs, students are given the opportunity to practice and express how to talk to someone about their overwhelming feelings. Students can use their voice and speak up if they are worried about themselves or others, and learn that asking for help is nothing to fear.
“Find ways to serve.”
When teens are able to serve their communities, they feel empowered and are able to make an impact. Erika’s Lighthouse has partnered with Key Clubs International, allowing existing Key Clubs and Builders Clubs to expand their impact by promoting good mental health and inclusivity through education and service. Along with the Teen Empowerment Club program, students are able to utilize Awareness into Action Activities in their schools and community, all with the goal of creating more inclusivity and open dialogue about mental health. Teens also have the opportunity to lead events in their school communities, such as Beacon of Hope Fun Runs/Walks, Shine Bright Neon Dance Relay and more.
“Learn and practice techniques to manage stress and other difficult emotions”
Among the many Erika’s Lighthouse resources are teen-centered worksheets and exercises intended to help students learn different ways to manage stress and how to develop positive coping mechanisms. The Teen Toolbox is something students can refer to in order to learn about depression, how one might be able to prevent depression, how to treat depression, how to cope and thrive, and how to ask for help or how to help a friend. Providing mental health education that also includes stress management and coping skills are key for youth empowerment.
“Be a source of support for others.”
Teens often are among the first to recognize if something is amiss with a peer. Empowering teens to know how to support one another is one way to build a good mental health atmosphere. The Erika’s Lighthouse classroom programs offer a few ways for teens to learn about how they can be a source of support for others. All our programs offer students exit slips or referral cards, whereby at the end of each lesson they are able to confidentially indicate whether they want to talk to a school counselor/mental health professional. Oftentimes students use these cards not only to reach out for help for themselves, but increasingly students want to talk to an adult in the building about a friend they are concerned for. Another exercise available in the classroom programs is “Text-a-Friend,” where students can practice how to communicate with a friend they are worried about, and how they can get connected to an adult who might be able to help.
EMPOWERING FAMILIES – “What Family Members and Caregivers Can Do”
Family Engagement is one of the pillars of the Erika’s Lighthouse model. The Family Engagement resources educate and engage parents, caregivers and families to help create truly inclusive and supportive school cultures.
“Be the best role model you can be for young people by taking care of your own mental and physical health.”
Erika’s Lighthouse offers resources for families and caregivers to utilize for their own education about mental health. Our Depression Discussion Guide and Signs and Symptoms handout, for example, are available for parents to refer to so that they can be informed about what depression looks like. In a partnership with the National PTA, many of their resources are now available on the Erika’s Lighthouse Resource Portal that further help spark conversations in homes. It’s important for parents and caregivers to know what to look for not only in their child, but in themselves. Additionally, the National PTA, through Shine Light on Depression, developed family workshops intended to help parents build an environment that supports the well-being of children.
“Look out for warning signs of distress, and seek help when needed.”
The Parent Handbook on Childhood and Teen Depression is a free downloadable resource available at ErikasLighthouse.org. This handbook was written by parents for parents, and is a guide for families that might be concerned about their child. If families and caregivers are informed about what to look for in a child who might be struggling, they will be better equipped to support that child in getting the help they need.
“Be a voice for mental health in your community.”
Family members and caregivers can help make change in their communities by promoting good mental health messaging and taking action. In partnership with the National PTA, family workshops can be hosted in collaboration with school staff, parents, educators and others to create informative and engaging sessions to discuss childhood and adolescent mental health.
EMPOWERING SCHOOL COMMUNITIES – “What Educators, School Staff, and School Districts Can Do”
Schools are where the roots of Erika’s Lighthouse were laid, and all four pillars of our programs continue to grow in even broader school environments. The Erika’s Lighthouse pillars are intended to impact school buildings and the people that are associated with them. By intentionally including teachers, staff and students in mental health empowerment efforts, school communities have the opportunity to develop stronger cultures.
“Create positive, safe, and affirming school environments.”
The Erika’s Lighthouse programs focus on building an inclusive school culture so that all students feel safe and supported. Leveraging all four of Erika’s Lighthouse pillars will impact the three major stakeholders of a school community: educators, students and families. All members of a school community should be on board with creating positive and safe school environments. Bringing awareness to mental health can be done in different ways, and educators, staff and districts have many options to do so.
“Expand social and emotional learning programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development.”
Erika’s Lighthouse offers classroom education across three levels, appropriate for grades 4-12. These classroom programs are designed to be a bridge between traditional SEL programs and deeper learning opportunities about mental health and mental health challenges. They are built to provide age-appropriate education from Level I (“We All Have Mental Health”) to Level II (“Depression Awareness”) to Level III (“Depression Education & Suicide Awareness”). While it is encouraged to utilize all three levels in progression, it is not mandatory, and each level can be used as standalone lessons, as needed.
“Learn how to recognize signs of changes in mental and physical health among students, including trauma and behavior changes. Take appropriate action when needed.”
Our School Policy & Staff Development resources allow schools to train teachers and school staff what to do should they become concerned about a student. Educators should know that they are not expected to diagnose a student, but they might be the ones to see sudden changes in a student’s behavior. Schools should be able to define and establish a protocol that all staff are aware of so that appropriate action may be taken.
“Provide a continuum of supports to meet student mental health needs, including evidence-based prevention practices and trauma-informed mental health care.”
Erika’s Lighthouse offers four pillars of support for schools, including classroom education, teen empowerment, staff development & policy and family engagement. Once a school is able to implement pieces from these pillars, there is a full-circle of Tier 1, universal support available for students, staff and families. The Erika’s Lighthouse classroom education programs are evidence-informed and are rooted in best-practice prevention efforts. In addition, the Erika’s Lighthouse focus on school policy can help guide schools in creating a Mental Health Task Force to further develop their efforts.
“Protect and prioritize students with higher needs and those at higher risk of mental health challenges.”
We empower teens to come forward – allowing school counselors and school social workers to better focus attention on students that are struggling and in need of support. Our self-referral cards give teens a way to reach out for help confidentially, and this allows mental health professionals in schools to devote time to those who are most in need. Focusing on marginalized communities is key, but before effective and meaningful interventions can take place all students, families and educators need a basic vocabulary and strong foundation for support.
EMPOWERING COMMUNITIES – “What Community Organizations Can Do”
A young person’s community will impact them in different ways. If community organizations are involved in supporting the dialogue about mental health, students will understand that even outside of the walls of their school conversations can be had and good mental health is important to prioritize.
“Educate the public about the importance of mental health, and reduce negative stereotypes, bias, and stigma around mental illness.”
The primary audience of Erika’s Lighthouse programming is schools, however, there are several instances where a community organization might provide mental health education programming. Community organizations have the ability to utilize custom Erika’s Lighthouse program materials through the Shine Light on Depression partnership. These resources allow organizations to utilize this important programming for the young people they work with. Youth empowerment, youth education and family engagement are three pieces that are addressed through this partnership.
“Implement evidence-based programs that promote healthy development, support children, youth, and their families, and increase their resilience.”
Community organizations are able to implement Erika’s Lighthouse programs to focus on empowering and educating youth and incorporate family engagement efforts. Our programs are evidence-informed and based on best practices and offer community organizations the opportunity to use the programs or resources that will work best with their respective populations.
“Elevate the voices of children, young people, and their families.”
When students and their families see messaging from school lessons carried over into the community, the lessons learned make a greater impact. Community organizations have the opportunity to use Awareness into Action Activities with their participants in order to continue the conversation about mental health. For example, organizations can utilize “Everyone deserves good mental health” posters or activities such as “Follow the Footprints” to a trusted adult’s office/room. By continuing the conversations outside of the school building, children, young people and their families can raise their voices to help “Get Depression Out of the Dark.”
Erika’s Lighthouse continues to be proactive with practical, easy-to-use, no-cost resources for families, educators and children. Everyone deserves good mental health and no child should ever feel alone in their depression.