The Emotional Well-Being of Our Nation's Youth and the Promise of Social-Emotional Learning

Article excerpt

RESEARCH-BASED PRACTICE

A recent study by the World Health Organization indicates that mental health problems account for nearly half of all disabilities among individuals between the ages of 10 and 24 (Gore et al., 2011). In the United States, about 17% of children suffer from mental illness (Roberts, Attkisson, & Rosenblatt, 1998), and approximately 5% to 9% meet eligibility criteria for serious emotional disturbance (New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003). Many of these children with emotional and mental health problems will experience serious life impairments. According to the Report of the Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health (U.S. Public Health Service, 2001), one in ten U.S.-born children suffers from a mental disorder severe enough to limit daily functioning in family, community, and school settings.

In response to this growing public health crisis, President Bush's New Freedom Commission (2003) recommends that all "Federal, State, and local child-servicing agencies fully recognize and address the mental health needs of youth in the educational system" (p. 62). Additionally, the Commission states that schools "must be active partners in the mental health care of our children" (p. 58) because of the "important interplay between emotional health and school success" (p. 58). However, despite recognizing the importance of addressing students' mental health needs, a significant discrepancy exists between these needs and the provision of needed services.

Millions of children do not receive mental health services, are poorly bonded to supportive educational communities, and fail to develop important social and emotional competencies. About 7.5 million children have an unmet mental health need and only 6% to 8% of U.S. children receive adequate mental health services (Kataoka, Zhang, & Wells, 2002). Furthermore, fewer than half of students (19% to 45%) develop competence in important social and emotional competencies such as empathetic responding, conflict resolution, and problem-solving skills upon graduation (Klem & Connell, 2004), and less than a third (29%) of 12th graders report that their school provides a caring and encouraging learning environment (Benson, 2006). Clearly, a public health crisis is looming in our schools.

SUPPORTING STUDENTS' MENTAL HEALTH AND EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING

Considering the aforementioned problems, many of which relate to students' school functioning, efforts are needed to support students' mental health needs and emotional well-being. Fortunately, schools maybe an optimal environment to tackle this initiative. Most (95%) youth spend at least 40 hours a week in school (Resnicow, Cross, Wynder, 1993) and utilization rates for school-based intervention programs are higher than they are for clinics due to the familiarity of the school setting and reduced transportation obstacles that often are associated with service delivery in other settings (Ginsburg, Becker, Newman-Kingery, & Nichols, 2008). Furthermore, research suggests that disparities in mental health service delivery are reduced in educational settings (Cummings, Ponce, & Mays, 2010), and schools can be prime locations to reach youth who traditionally underuse mental health services (Ginsburg et al, 2008).

Prevention and early intervention. In addition to addressing students' mental health needs, schools also must work toward actively preventing mental health problems through supporting students' healthy development and emotional well-being. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine (2009) highlights the importance of promoting healthy self-esteem, social-emotional competence, and social inclusion as important aspects of preventing and treating emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders. Although the importance of targeting these objectives may seem obvious to mental health professionals, this report represents a gradual yet essential shift in focus as the Institute previously failed to establish mental health promotion as an effective preventative intervention in 1994 (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Schellinger, & Taylor, 2011) . …