The Great Resignation is colliding with the youth mental health crisis.

The Great Resignation is colliding with the youth mental health crisis.

Welcome to State of Mind, a section from Slate and Arizona State University dedicated to exploring mental health. Follow us on Twitter.

Between February 2020 and May 2022, more than 300,000 educators resigned in the U.S., citing concerns over safety, burnout, and low pay, among other reasons. As a result, gaps in critical youth support have widened, negatively affecting the mental health of adolescents and young adults. While the reasons behind the so-called Great Resignation are complex and understandable, the timing couldn’t be worse, as America’s children and adolescents are experiencing a significant increase in mental health challenges, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and other leading medical groups.

Schools provide an important holding environment for our youth, where they spend more than 13 percent of their lives shaping their academic futures, personal identities, self-confidence, and relationships. Today, approximately 15 million teens attend our nation’s high schools. While it is estimated that 1 out of every 5 U.S. youths experiences a mental health disorder each year, fewer than half receive care. Among those who are connected to services, most initially receive them in school. Students of color, those from lower-income families, and those with public health insurance are particularly likely to receive mental health services exclusively in school settings.

Researchers consistently find that schools are critical for promoting student well-being. They do this in part by creating safe, connected spaces for students and staff. Nurturing cultures of care are particularly important for youth who face significant challenges such as a lack of adequate sleep, food, or safety. A 2019 report published by the National Center for School Mental Health notes, “The past decade has documented the beneficial impact of mental health and evidence-based prevention programming on both long-term psychological outcomes and academic performance.” It is no surprise, therefore, that the surgeon general recommends that we create “positive, safe, and affirming educational environments, expanding programming that promotes healthy development (such as social and emotional learning), and providing a continuum of supports to meet the social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs of children and youth.”

But making all of those things happen requires teachers, administrators, and other support staff, and the growing number of vacancies at every level leave many in survival mode with no excess capacity for strategic planning activities. In fact, schools and lawmakers are taking dramatic and potentially problematic actions just to ensure schools are staffed and classes can be taught. For example, Arizona has eliminated the degree requirement to teach and has hired current college students as teachers. Florida is recruiting retired military veterans to fill teaching roles, and New Mexico asked National Guard personnel to consider substitute teaching.

While some of these solutions offer short-term stopgaps for critical shortages, teachers with no formal training are more likely to struggle in the position and thus are more likely to leave the profession than fully qualified educators are, creating a greater sense of instability for students and other staff.

Any long-term solution will require honest and robust consideration of why qualified teachers are leaving at such high rates. A recent Gallup poll found that the top two professions in the U.S. with the greatest burnout were K–12 instructors and college and university educators. Further research documented that 1 in 5 educators reports that their students’ well-being affects their own mental health.

It is no surprise that educators feel emotionally and mentally drained, as they frequently double as counselors for their students. Educators are often the first to notice a student struggling or to be the person a student turns to in a time of need. While the relationship between a student and a teacher is powerful and can foster feelings of connectedness, improved academic success, and increased emotional well-being, teachers are not trained to support students with persistent or severe mental health concerns. Yet they often find themselves forced to be proxy therapists, which is not good for their or their students’ overall mental health and well-being. For this reason, it is important for schools to educate teachers on how to recognize the early signs of struggle, know what to say to the student, and know when, where, and how to refer them to professional help if needed. The truth is that the current situation might worsen before it improves, since addressing the underlying challenges and needs driving the great resignation will take time.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of governmental and community-level resources and supports that schools can leverage. Several resources are available, such as this Guide for Mental Health Federal Funding Opportunities for High Schools from the Jed Foundation (where I am CEO) and this Funding and Sustainability Guide from the National Center for School Mental Health. The Department of Education also issues public notices about funding opportunities.

While funding for mental health services within school systems is a federal priority and is increasingly easy to access, a significant number of schools do not have the capacity to capitalize upon these opportunities. Lack of bandwidth, staff, and/or knowledge pose significant impediments to securing and using available funding. School administrators also worry about what will happen to new systems once funds are exhausted. Even when schools do commit to hiring mental health professionals, they often can’t find people to fill the roles. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 19 percent of public schools reported vacancies of mental health professionals for the 2022–2023 school year.

While schools, communities, and local and federal governments do everything they can to productively address current challenges, schools would benefit from adopting a public health strategy for optimizing mental health promotion and suicide prevention in their current and evolving environments. Identifying and developing formal approaches does require front-end investment of time and focus, but once established would assure early identification of and remediation for struggling students (and staff).

Schools lacking internal capacity can consider partnering with local and/or national organizations, like the Jed Foundation or the National Center for School Mental Health, to assist in developing and implementing customized actionable and evidence-based mental health promotion and suicide prevention plans. Such partnerships can also be helpful in identifying and leveraging additional funding and other resources. In short, schools cannot and should not be expected to navigate the challenges of this time alone.

High schools, colleges, and universities can start by assessing their current policies, programs and systems that support mental health to identify where they are doing well and where there are areas for improvement, using an equitable lens to ensure that potentially marginalized or underserved students are considered and well served. It will then be important to develop a strategic plan to fortify and expand areas of strength and invest in resources to address identified gaps.

Second, building communities of care outside of classrooms to fill in missing supports and address student needs is important and powerful. Establishing school–community partnerships takes advantage of local resources and strengths and can include hospitals, behavioral health care providers, or designated mental health planners for each district. While school staffing shortages make allocation of additional staff challenging, having an individual dedicated to overseeing the needs, climate, and opportunities for improvement within each school district can streamline progress and save resources in the long run. In addition, schools can work with community partners to figure out how to meet short, immediate, and longer term needs in light of staff and other resource shortages.

The Great Resignation is just one example of the impact that stress and mental health challenges can have on our functioning and the systems we operate in. In order to address these challenges in our educational systems, we need a multipronged approach in which the financial, emotional, and professional needs of educators are understood and addressed, and where partnerships are established to help schools implement comprehensive, evidence-based approaches to supporting the mental health of the school community.

Crucially, funding alone is not the answer, nor is simply hiring more school counselors. While both are important, they will fall short if not paired with concrete strategies and resources to effect sustainable change.  Let’s seize the opportunity to think and plan deliberately and comprehensively to enhance and promote the well-being of all in our schools.

State of Mind
is a partnership of
Arizona State University
that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it