In a weekend article about relaxation of the state’s youth employment rules, a local school superintendent expressed concern about the effect of longer work hours on teen mental health, which is already a worry.
Lisa Witte, superintendent for School Administrative Unit 93, said more hours spent on the job will result in less downtime, less social interaction with peers and “less time to just be a kid.”
“The needs related to COVID are more social/emotional in my view, and less time to attend to those needs may be an unintended consequence,” Witte told Sentinel reporter Tim Nail.
Being a teenager is hard, as Olivia Belanger pointed out last week in her column about teen mental health for The Sentinel’s Monadnock Region Health Reporting Lab. “In their formative years, young people today have lived through countless acts of violence, climate change, global pandemic, unprecedented political divisiveness ...,” Belanger writes.
She reports that 1-in-6 between the ages of 6 and 17 have a mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Especially in this age of social media, teenagers tend to live as if they are under a microscope, worrying excessively about what others might think of them. Time “to just be a kid,” as Witte says — interacting with peers through sports or other recreational activities and getting the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep per night — helps put things in perspective.
Schools have found it difficult to return to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic. Keene High School navigated a host of behavioral issues during the last academic year, including vandalism and fights, as well as drug and alcohol use. The turbulence culminated in student protests and resulted in public forums.
As NHPR’s Sarah Gibson reported in May, the behavioral issues at Keene High School were alarming, but not unique. Since the pandemic’s upending of the normal educational routine, New Hampshire schools have been grappling with an uptick in behavioral and mental health problems.
Students and school staff told NHPR that while the majority of students have made a successful transition back to the classroom, a mental health crisis looms as schools continue to struggle with behavioral issues.
Teen anxiety and depression are on the rise in New Hampshire and across the country, and experts link these feelings to behavioral problems, according to Gibson’s report. Schools have introduced measures to help students cope, including social and emotional learning programs, meditation skills, counseling and sensory breaks.
Add to the pandemic chaos a new cluster of mass shootings, including school massacres such as the one in Uvalde, Texas, in May, along with other dystopian scenarios resulting from climate change, political conspiracy theories and regressive Supreme Court decisions and we — the alleged adults in the room — have served up a steady diet of fear and anxiety for younger generations.
A new documentary from Ken Burns, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness,” now streaming on PBS, gives voice to the experiences of young people who struggle with mental health challenges and focuses on the importance of awareness and empathy. Adults may come away from viewing the video realizing their culpability for creating a world many young people find intolerable.
“They are living in a world that, to them, feels predominantly unsafe …,” Katherine Cook, chief operating officer of Monadnock Family Services, told The Sentinel’s Belanger. “We have to give young people space to open up about what their feelings are, rather than invalidate them or give them a false sense of safety.”
An adult’s role is not to shelter kids from life’s challenges but to demonstrate constructive ways to overcome them.
New Hampshire schools face many challenges as they prepare to begin a new academic year. Sadly, student mental health won’t be the least of them.