Building Connection: Youth Mental Health and Civic Engagement

Jessica Sutter, Chief of Civic Learning Initiatives

January 19, 2024

In my time as a middle school teacher, DC State Board of Education member, and now civic preparedness advocate, I have been lucky to meet and work with hundreds of adolescents. What strikes me again and again is how adolescents are working hard to figure out who and what they want to be when they grow up. And it is clear they care deeply about being taken seriously by the adults in their lives.

Unfortunately, too many of our adolescents today are not thriving. Voices of Gen Z: Perspectives on U.S. Education, Wellbeing and the Future, a recent poll from Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation, found what those of us working in education see every day: 12–26-year-olds struggle with mental and emotional wellbeing more than the previous generation at the same age. Educators see the loneliness of their students. The poll shows that Gen Z self-identifies feeling loneliness at higher rates than other generations – 27 percent vs 19 percent of Millennials or 16 percent of Gen Xers.

Educators around the country are witnessing how these mental health challenges are impacting their schools and communities. But what can we do about it? It is well documented by research that when students – especially adolescents – feel that adults and peers in school care about them as individuals, they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness which helps them thrive. For educators who want to make a difference, supporting middle and high school students to find ways to be engaged in their schools and broader civic community is essential. And, by focusing on connectedness as a civic issue and a critical life skill, educators will catalyze positive change on multiple issues vexing our current generation of teens.

A recent national poll from my organization, The Civic Outlook of Young Adults in America, asked more than 4,000 young people ages 18-24 about their engagement in civic life. The findings are stark: 33 percent of respondents said they are not currently engaged in any community activities, such as sports, hobbies, volunteerism, or faith groups. This includes young people currently engaged in higher education as well as those already in the workforce. We also asked about young people’s trust in various institutions and people involved in civic life. Young people overwhelmingly place their greatest level of trust in academic institutions, with 78 percent expressing trust in schools, libraries, and museums.

Schools and educators clearly have an invitation to lead in empowering young adults to help strengthen our civic life. Middle and high school students need educators to help them understand the landscape of opportunities to engage with others, especially in real life. Helping students identify clubs, teams and associations they can join – or supporting them to start ones that do not yet exist in their community is one key strategy all educators can embrace. With the coming “fiscal cliff” prompted by the sunsetting of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, after-school programming is at increasing risk of being cut. Creating in-class space for student-led and student-driven conversation is a way teachers can ensure students continue to have space to practice discussion skills and get help from skilled and trusted adults if a conversation goes off-track.

Educators need their principals and other school-level administrators to support them in both in-class and extracurricular approaches. Principals and other building leaders should promote diverse offerings of clubs, teams, and associations at their schools. Student-led or student-directed groups, teacher sponsored groups and partnerships with community organizations all add valuable places for civic engagement at school. School leaders should also seek out and support professional development for educators to learn to facilitate student-led discussions and authentic learning experiences. Various civic learning organizations including the Bill of Rights Institute, Facing History and Ourselves, and the Center for Civic Education all offer resources and support for helping educators develop their own skills, as well as their students, for engaging in civil discourse. Above all, administrators must stress the importance of human connection for young people and work to find ways to ensure that all students have outlets for authentic engagement – both in and out of the classroom.

Making connectedness a goal for the school year is a key role district leaders must play in this work. Ideally, this includes enlisting their school board in allocating and protecting funding for student clubs, teams and associations and supporting public messaging around the critical need for such programs as part of broader effort to connect young people for both their mental wellness and their preparation as engaged citizens.

Naming youth mental health and youth civic engagement as state priorities will drive funding. State education leaders, both superintendents and chiefs as well as their state board of education chairs, can set the tone for these local leaders and educators by pulling this powerful lever. Establishing a data collection can ensure that attention and time are paid to statewide progress on these essential issues.

The work of addressing the mental health and well-being of young people does not stand apart from the work of preparing young people for life as citizens. All this work is interconnected.  No one educator, school, district or state will be able to completely address the issue of teen mental health or the engagement of adolescents in American civic life, but all of them must take urgent actions to ensure that our young people will thrive as students and as empowered citizens.

Related: The Kids Are Alright Vol. 6

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