Student Well-Being

Some Teens Don’t See School as a Kind Place. Here’s Why That Matters.

By Evie Blad — July 27, 2017 4 min read
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While mental health is a priority for many high school students, they don’t always see their schools as supportive places where they can seek help and talk through problems, a survey released Thursday finds.

And that matters because teens often turn to informal support from peers to get through personal difficulties and stress, the report’s authors said.

Fifty-four percent of high school students responding to the online survey said mental health was a very important priority, and 34 percent described it as somewhat important.

But students who scored lower on a mental health inventory included in the survey were less likely to describe their schools as kind places. And students who said their schools adopted supportive practices, like greeting students at the door and including discussions of mental health in class, were more likely to score higher on that mental health inventory than their peers in schools that did not adopt those practices.

The survey was conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group on behalf of the Born This Way Foundation, an organization founded by singer Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, to research and promote mental wellness among young people.

“We have to demystify [mental health] and destigmatize it, and that has to start with improving our understanding of mental health,” Germanotta, who is the foundation’s president, said in a conference call with reporters.

How do you measure students’ mental health?

Survey respondents included 3,015 people ages 15-24 and 1,004 parents of 15- to 24-year-olds. For many questions, results were separated by respondents’ status: high school, college, or work.

Respondents took an abbreviated mental health inventory developed by the Rand Corporation that asked them how often in the past month they’ve been a happy person, felt calm and peaceful, been nervous, felt downhearted and blue, and “felt so down in the dumps that nothing could cheer you up.”

Among high school respondents, 79 percent with a high mental health score said their school is a kind place, compared to 12 percent of respondents with a low score on the mental health inventory. Overall, 61 percent of high school respondents described their school community as kind, compared to 63 percent of their parents.

Kindness in school

So what makes a school kind? The survey asked teens about three common practices researchers have connected to supportive school environments: whether teachers say “hi” to students as they arrive, whether schools discuss mental health in classes, and whether teens believe their classmates make an effort to include people who are different.

Eleven percent of high school students said they had all of these resources at school, 20 percent said they have none of these resources, and the rest said they had some but not all three.

And these things correlated strongly with positive perceptions of school.

Of students attending schools with none of those resources, just 38 percent described their schools as kind, compared to 91 percent of students who said their school had all three.

The presence of those three factors also correlated with higher scores on the mental health inventory, as you can see in the graphic at left.

Of course, respondents may have had varying definitions of what makes a school kind. And correlation is not causation. It’s possible that a student may see their school as kind because they are healthy and happy, rather than the other way around.

“Obviously, there’s a bit of a chicken and egg issue here, and perception plays a role,” said Danny Franklin, managing partner of the Benenson Strategy Group.

And this all matters because young people often turn to peers for support, and healthy school environments make it easier for them to build those supportive relationships, researchers say. That’s why schools around the country have adopted school climate surveys to gauge and track students’ perceptions and to identify ways they can improve.

And those peer relationships formed at school may also be more important than some parents realize. Overall, surveyed parents were more likely than young respondents to say their children would talk to them about personal crises, including a friend harming themself, physical bullying, and feeling bad about their body. Those results included all respondents—including those in high school, college, and work.

The report also asks about stress, access to mental health resources, and other issues. You can read the whole thing here.

Wait. Did you say Lady Gaga?

That’s right. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, which shares its name with one of her hit songs, explores issues related to the well-being of young people. The effort was inspired by the singer’s own struggles with bullying, anxiety, and depression, her mother said.

Born This Way has worked with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and efforts to promote social-emotional learning in schools. And the organization has also also conducted several large-scale youth surveys to explore topics related to their well-being.

Top photo: Getty Images
Bottom photo: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP-File

Further reading on mental health and school climate:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.