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  • Joanna Bache Tobin

Student Mental Health Must Be a Priority, Not an Afterthought

Supporting the physical and emotional well-being of our students is a primary plank in my campaign to represent District 6 on the Anne Arundel County Board of Education. My experience as a parent and an educator has taught me that emotional well-being is necessary to help ground our children’s academic achievement and intellectual development. With more than a decade as an evaluator of public charter programs around the country, I’ve witnessed that the schools with the most academic success have prioritized their students’ emotional and physical health by ensuring strong supports are in place.

If anything good rises from the hardships imposed by this pandemic, it must be the realization of changes that will help to eliminate current education gaps. We must understand the importance of prioritizing physical and mental health as a part of education. We simply cannot separate well-being and learning. We cannot treat mental health concerns as secondary to better test scores or budget concerns, for example. The results of not prioritizing our students’ mental health needs have been evident for a long time. Perhaps you’ve noted how avoiding the mental health issues of our students can be deadly. In October of 2019, the Centers for Disease Control reported that teenage suicide rates nationwide had increased by 56 percent between 2007 and 2017, the latest period for which data is available. This increase is staggering; understanding why this has happened is critical. Our children are depending upon us to provide for their needs and to protect them. We must find a way to change the trajectory.

To flatten this heartbreaking curve from an educational perspective, I propose the following:

If learning rests on physical and mental well-being, then schools must be structured around changes that provide an environment of well-being. Sufficient counselors and social workers can't be a budgetary afterthought. They have to be central to a properly staffed school, just as central as teachers. School hours need to be determined by the developmental needs of our children, adhering to the recommendations of the medical professionals. And the school day itself needs to create opportunities for feelings of well-being: space for recess, time for students to truly absorb what they are learning, and class sizes that enable teacher-student relationships and allow time for children to be valued and seen as whole human beings.

Truly, none of us can know with any accuracy when our country will emerge from the current situation, or what our new normal will be. But we do know much work will be required to help our children find their way back to their routines and academic structure. Supporting their mental health as they readjust to school and process what they’ve experienced will be more important than ever.

I believe that putting in place the necessary supports, including adequate numbers of counselors and social workers, should be a priority going forward in order to pave the way to better education for our children and a better future for us all.

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