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Socio-emotional educational works. But it cannot replace help with mental illness.

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 Socio-emotional educational works.  But it cannot replace help with mental illness.

Johnny, an eighth-grader, has been unable to stop fighting all year and tells everyone who will listen that he feels excited daily, often in non-threatening situations. Marisele, a fourth-grader, has a hard time keeping friends, and she finds it harder to pull out in class. Lately she has only been appearing two days a week. Muhammad, who is in the tenth grade, has lost a quarter of his body weight since last year, although his studies have remained in its path.

In each of these cases, their teachers are concerned. They know Johnny, Marciela and Muhammad far from alone.

Over the past few years, schools have wondered what else they can do to meet the enormous emotional needs of their students. In many places, the answer seems to be interventions designed to universally build emotional skills and comfort, often known as social and emotional learning.

But socio-emotional learning, or SEL, is not intended to treat (diagnose or treat) mental illness, although it can create conditions for observation and concern. What it can do is play an important role in promoting stronger human development and a more responsive school environment.

The pandemic disrupted almost every aspect education for at least two years: separating children and young people from their peers, their schools and schedules, and threatening both security and healthy development. Two months ago the surgeon general of the United States issued a terrible message warning about the explosive crisis of youth mental health, exacerbated by the pandemic but lasting until 2020. Attendance at ambulances for children and youth and suicide attempts have increased dramatically. School counseling and social workers are overwhelmed. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association has announced “Fr. state of emergency». President Biden devoted much of his time in his recent address on the state of the Union to the crisis, noting the serious shortage of affordable behavioral health providers, and proposing a significant expansion of sound evidence on mental health and comprehensive services for schools.

The right tools to work with

In the last few years, many schools and districts have begun to implement universal / school-wide social and emotional learning programs, and there are good reasons for this. Rich evidence, developed over the past 20 years, shows that SEL programs work, in particular, based on factual data that is executed with accuracy. They can help students form and manage relationships with peers and adults, as well as establish important self-understanding and develop lifelong self-management skills. SEL contributes to the strengthening of the school climate, attendance, affiliation, empathy, development of identity, cultural coherence and appreciation of others and the common good. Transformational SEL, a new discipline that focuses on culture and identity, addresses hidden and overt prejudices and opens up new avenues for teaching and learning focused on relationships, adapted to culture. SEL is also directly related to improving academic performance, reducing disciplinary and mental health in schools.

Moreover, thanks to its main focus on self-understanding, SEL helps to strengthen an important aspect of learning: metacognition, or think about your thinking. Metacognition creates familiarity with habitual responses to challenge, stress, and adversity, as well as awareness of individual strengths and weaknesses. Metacognition opens up the potential for conscious direction toward better personal decisions and outcomes.

The beating heart of effective SEL programs is a relationship – and a strong relationship ensures stable mental health. The environment, saturated with SEL, promotes and maintains prosperity. But there is a limit to what we can reasonably expect from learning SEL skills, and in some cases they have broad, perhaps high expectations, especially when it comes to treating mental illnesses that are different from mental health.

SEL and mental illness are not the face of each other. Mental health and mental illness fall into different categories, reflecting fundamentally different analyzes and toolkits. Mental health often described as successful and stable participation in productive activities (e.g., work, school, friendships) and healthy relationships (peers, family, wider community). Its distinctive features are the ability to adapt to change, maintain stable relationships and fight adversity. These basic elements of mental health correlate well with the opportunities promised by SEL.

Mental illness, on the other hand, collectively refers to diagnosed mental disorders. Here the focus is on disorders of thinking, emotions or behavior that often lead to disorders and problems in social, work or family activities. Diagnosed mental disorders are determined by the presence of specific symptom profiles. Anxiety, bipolar disorder, mood or eating disorders, PTSD, OCD and depression are all mental disorders, but they are very different. All this requires qualified professionals for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.

A look at a complete set of SEL skillsand dive deeper into diagnostic signs of mental illness disorders reinforces the understanding that these two are by no means the reverse sides of the same coin.

Solving Mental Illness

Given our controversial national dialogue on education, it is not surprising that SEL has become loaded into politics over the past few years, but it retains strong support among educators. Public opinion about mental illness has always been overshadowed brand, and remains so now. And while increasing attention to the mental health crisis during the pandemic has led to greater definition, concern, and wringing of hands, it has not yet led to significant destigmatization.

Understanding the differences between mental well-being and mental illness, as well as understanding the need for professional intervention in the latter and the role that SEL can play everywhere, is more important than ever given an explosion of mental illness needs. According to one American Psychological Association poll, Generation Z are more likely to rate their mental health as good or bad than older generations. Only 45 percent said their mental health was very good.

Here are brief tips on how all schools can maintain the mental health of young people, promote their prosperity and development, and combat mental illness:

  • Promote SEL across the district by offering consistent approaches to human development. Take every opportunity to get to know the students deeply and take a team approach to caring for everyone.
  • The affiliation of the center and relationship. Every child should have a caring adult who can be approached and all school staff can play a role. Be intentional and make sure each student has an adult who cares for them. Assign and control. Spend class time building relationships.
  • Teach all school staff Mental health first aid so they know how to identify students or peers with difficulty and direct them to the help they need. Pay attention to the well-being of adults who care about students.
  • Measure SEL gains / losses along with an assessment of the school climate using evidence-based tools which offer specific feedback and lead to guidance on improvement.
  • Create safe, inclusive communities that reduce dependence on discipline / exclusion. Measure the school climate. Act on the data. Attendance and discipline / exclusion are key indicators.
  • Never underestimate or ignore the need for devotion in the home mental health staff / counseling. These staff may also contribute to the SEL, but should be referred to the identification, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness or to other professionals.

While school and district SEL activities are almost always positive, these programs are not designed to meet the individual needs of mental illness. How can we better serve Johnny, Marisela and Muhammad and all their peers when they grow up? Schools should fund and manage both SEL and mental illness intentionally and clearly. Our students deserve no less.

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