“There is no health without mental health; mental health is too important to be left to the professionals alone, and mental health is everyone’s business.” — Vikram Patel.
It’s a fact that was unceremoniously thrust to the forefront of discussions across the globe in the wake of COVID-19: Mental health IS health. It is fundamentally intertwined with everyone’s whole-body wellbeing and helps us regulate our overall emotional, psychological, and social presence at home, at work, at school – wherever we are, there it is, too. We know that stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can have profound effects on our physical strength, manifesting in various forms such as headaches, sleep disturbances, heart disease, and even chronic conditions like diabetes. It can create a feedback loop of deteriorating overall health and further isolate those already struggling – especially our young people.
We’ve all seen the statistics. Unchecked mental health conditions in youth ages 8-18 can lead to academic underperformance, decreased engagement, higher dropout rates, and even pose risks for substance abuse and suicide. Promoting mental health in school buildings aids in reducing the stigma associated with mental health conditions, and on-campus before and after school programs like AYS provide reinforcement for classroom efforts to foster a supportive environment. Each day, we see just how important these efforts are for the students in our care and it seems to be a budding trend in Indiana; out-of-school time programs have increasingly been identified as appropriate sites for mental health advocacy.
Our youth development staff are considered well placed to identify issues concerning students’ social and emotional well-being. AYS is uniquely positioned to offer additional support to students; in a less formal environment, identifying students’ social and emotional well-being is more seamless. Additionally, we see and talk to each child’s parent regularly, so assistance with potential issues can happen organically. However, these staff members receive little training in their pre-service and subsequent education to adequately prepare them for such realities due to limited funding and capacity. If we are collectively going to support youth mental health – we need to start with supporting the workers who care for them every day.
Promoting Student Wellbeing Beyond the School Day: Mental Health Focus
Training & Development for Afterschool Program Staff
- Proper training on Mental Health awareness and trauma-informed care is crucial to maximize their effectiveness and to ensure the highest quality of services for students.
- Professional development keeps staff updated on current educational strategies, technology, and policies, enabling them to adapt to changing educational landscapes.
Developing a Culture of Belonging
- Creating spaces where youth feel like they belong fosters a safe and supportive environment where every participant feels valued, accepted, and empowered.
- Intentionally establishing an expectation of inclusion promotes social integration, helping youth to develop essential interpersonal skills and learn to respect and appreciate diversity.
Increased Resources for Staff Wellbeing
- A more robust toolkit for Afterschool staff’s mental health would help combat the risk for burnout, anxiety, and depression from managing heightened emotional labor in their programs.
- This can be accomplished by increasing access to counseling services, mental health education, stress management training, or even simple practices like regular check-ins and creating spaces for staff to unwind and share experiences.
We can help see these changes through, but we need State and federal agencies and private foundations to understand the correlation between afterschool programs, mental wellbeing, and positive youth outcomes. Here are some key strategies to get engaged:
Legislative Advocacy: You can advocate by supporting legislation that promotes mental health care, accessibility, and awareness. This involves staying informed about proposed bills at local, state, and federal levels, and expressing support or opposition accordingly.
Contacting Representatives: Constituents can write, call, or meet with their elected officials to express their concerns and propose changes. Personal stories can be particularly compelling, so sharing personal experiences with mental health, or the experiences of loved ones, can be powerful.
Election Participation: Voting is a critical aspect of advocacy. By researching candidates and supporting those who prioritize mental health issues, voters can help elect individuals committed to mental health reform.
Grassroots Advocacy: This involves organizing and mobilizing groups of people to raise awareness and demand action on youth mental health issues. This can be through community meetings, town halls, or coordinated social media campaigns.
Public Testimonies: Testifying at public hearings or meetings can help influence lawmakers’ opinions and decisions. Sharing personal experiences or professional insights about mental health can highlight the importance and urgency of the issues.
Partnerships and Coalitions: Joining forces with existing mental health organizations can amplify your voice. Many organizations have advocacy programs that provide resources and training to help their members become effective advocates.
Education and Awareness: Advocacy also involves educating the public to reduce stigma around mental health and increase understanding about its importance. This can be achieved through community workshops, mental health awareness events, and informational campaigns.
Advocacy efforts, big or small, can lead to significant changes in the youth development – both kids and the adults caring for them – landscape, ensuring that mental health care is seen as a right, not a privilege. Through these actions, individuals and communities can help shape policy, fight stigma, and create a society that prioritizes mental health and well-being beyond the classroom.
Chrystal Struben is the President & CEO of AYS, Inc. (At Your School) located in Central Indiana. She serves as a pivotal committee member on the Indiana Afterschool Network Advocacy board and is a national Afterschool Ambassador with Afterschool Alliance.