Student Well-Being

What a Superintendent Told U.S. Senators About Student Mental Health

By Libby Stanford — June 08, 2023 6 min read
Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joshua Garcia testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Why Are So Many American Youth in a Mental Health Crisis? Exploring Causes and Solutions, on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8, 2023.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In the past year, 10 students in the Tacoma school district in Washington state have been shot. Others have survived human trafficking; battled homelessness; and dealt with substance use, physical and mental abuse, social media harassment, and bullying, Superintendent Joshua Garcia said.

The challenges aren’t unique to Tacoma or even Washington state. They represent nationally persistent problems that lead to worsening mental health and higher rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety among students, Garcia said while testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on Thursday.

“Although these may not be new challenges to us as a nation, the speed of the incidences and the traumatic stress are only increasing,” Garcia said. “Like you and I, our students are being bombarded with images, news events, daily experiences of trauma, and hate and stress. Unlike us, they’re doing this without fully developed brains, coping skills, or access to preventative and therapeutic services.”

Garcia was one of five experts to testify during the Senate HELP committee’s hearing on the worsening youth mental health crisis. One of them was U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who has labeled kids’ worsening mental health the “defining public health issue of our time.”

In 2021, two in five high school students, including 60 percent of girls and 70 percent of LGBTQ+ students, reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless. And one in five students reported making a suicide plan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s regular Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey.

Murthy identified social media, loneliness and isolation, lack of community engagement, trauma, and world challenges, such as climate change, gun violence, racism, political polarization, and economic instability, as significant drivers of the youth mental health crisis.

“For many young people their confidence in the future has been undermined by the serious challenges they are set to inherit from economic inequality and climate change to racism and gun violence,” Murthy said. “The bottom line is our kids can’t afford to wait longer for us to address the youth mental health crisis.”

Murthy urged senators to expand access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care for children, and also work to tackle the causes of mental health problems, such as social media and trauma caused by gun violence.

Supporting school-based measures

During his testimony, Garcia, who was recognized as a 2015 Week Education Leader to Learn From while he served as Tacoma’s deputy superintendent, highlighted the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative—an effort that he said is shifting schools’ focus from episodic responses during moments of crisis to a sustainable effort to support student well-being.

The district has schools focus on prevention strategies, response strategies, and therapeutic services for students, Garcia said. Each school has developed a plan to support social-emotional learning, through which students learn skills such as relationship building and self-regulation. Students have opportunities for physical and mental wellness activities during the school day and after school through partnerships with community organizations. The 29,000-student district also uses positive behavioral interventions and supports to ensure that students understand expectations, uses universal mental health screenings, and ensures that schools develop strong relationships with families.

The district is also working to decrease the ratio of students to school psychologists and mental health workers, using federal funding made available during the COVID-19 pandemic. Garcia encouraged senators to increase funding for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed last year after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, providing $2 billion for schools to support mental health services as well as $350 million to support community learning centers and school safety measures.

He also called on Congress to incentivize health care providers to partner with schools and require states to match the federal government’s investment in mental health services to boost available resources.

The Education Department has said that the first round of Bipartisan Safer Communities Act grants dedicated to growing the school-based mental health workforce will add 14,000 school psychologist, counselor, and social worker roles to schools. But that is still far from what is needed to meet student mental health demands, experts say.

“America’s schools and individual communities can’t do this alone,” Garcia said. “We must work in partnership.”

A spotlight on social media

Youth mental health has been a rare point of bipartisan agreement for lawmakers over the past few years—as evidenced by the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Within that agreement is a bipartisan understanding that social media is a strong contributor to youth mental health issues.

Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., held up their cell phones at different points during the hearing, portraying them as dangerous tools in the hands of youth.

“The biggest drug we’ve got is this right here,” Tuberville said. “We’ve all got it. There’s not a person in here who doesn’t have one of these. I’m guilty like everybody else and I stay on it. I think everything on there is true but it’s not, but our young kids think that it is. That’s the problem.”

Murthy used the hearing as an opportunity to highlight some of the policy suggestions his office made when it issued an advisory on the negative impacts of social media on youth mental health in May. As of 2021, 8th and 10th graders spent an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media, and a study of teenagers ages 12 to 15 found that those who spend more than three hours a day on social media are twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to the advisory.

Murthy urged senators to consider legislation that puts safeguards in place, including stricter age verification enforcement for children under 13—the minimum age to open an account on most social media sites—and stronger data privacy so children aren’t targeted by harmful advertisements.

He also suggested requirements that social media companies be more transparent about the harmful impacts of social media on youth mental health and be required to ensure that they’re not exposing children to harmful content, bullying, and harassment, or employing features that keep children on social media longer.

Some lawmakers have already introduced bills that would institute such measures. Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Katie Britt, R-Ala., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act in April, which would set a minimum age requirement of 13, require parental consent for kids 13 to 17, and prevent social media companies from using algorithms to feed content to children until they turn 18.

“These are incredibly complex platforms that are rapidly evolving, fundamentally changing how our kids see themselves and interact with the world,” Murthy said. “And parents need help here to interpret and understand their safety.”


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren't Enough
Middle schoolers' developmental stage makes them uniquely vulnerable to the negative aspects of cellphones. Policies alone won't help.
6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
A student holds a cellphone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Download How to Spot and Combat Student Apathy: A Teacher Resource
A guide to help teachers recognize and address apathy in the classroom.
1 min read
Student reading at a desk with their head on their hand.