A homemade poster is attached to the entry sign of W.G. Mallett School in Farmington in February 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Kristy L. Ouellette is an extension professor of 4-H youth development at The University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Maine schools are wrapping up their final days of the school year, a year where educators, students, staff and parents attempted to return to normal. Students returned to full-day instruction, with larger class sizes than they had experienced previously. Students were expected to come to school prepared, with their school supplies, snacks and water bottles packed in their backpacks. Expected to go back to what school has always been without the support or interventions in place to address the mental health crisis many students are experiencing.

Students are not only bringing their physical backpacks to school, they are also carrying invisible backpacks; filled with heavy items, often not visible at first glance, but impacting their school journey. These challenges have been present in our youth prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, now more than ever, in our local public schools educators, teachers, staff and parents are seeing the weight of what our young people are carrying.

You’ve heard the phrase, “kids are resilient, they will be fine.” As much as we want to believe this statement, data-focused youth mental health says otherwise. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. having a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder.

Our local pre-k-12 public schools are not equipped with the resources needed to effectively support these challenges. This is an issue that is beyond classroom management and what had been typically expected within the walls of public education. As we collectively returned to a “normal” school year, in most districts throughout Maine, limited support systems or interventions were in place to support what most classrooms needed. Classroom teachers wore the hats of educator, nurse, therapist, behavioral interventionist, disciplinarian, food service worker and more, often within the first half hour of school each day.    

As school districts across the state are passing their school budgets for 2022-23, we must invest in support for all students. Establishing systems and supports needed to provide intervention for students who are experiencing mental health challenges. The National Education Association reports that 55 percent of classroom teachers are considering leaving the classroom earlier than they planned. This is not because teachers want to leave the classroom, it is often because they are not given the support needed to be able to do their work. Classroom teachers in a recent national survey stated providing additional mental support for students is a critical need. 

In the midst of a national youth mental health crisis, instead of claiming the kids are OK, it is time for action. If you are not already, get involved with your local school budget process; advocate for systems which will meet the challenges our kids are facing through innovation and action. Providing our schools with the support needed is just one layer of solution.

This issue does not solely fall on the shoulders of public schools. Local, state and federal policy and lawmakers should be encouraged to ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable and culturally competent mental health care locally. Mental health is an essential part of overall health. The Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health outlines a series of recommendations to improve youth mental health across eleven sectors, including young people and their families, educators and schools, and media and technology companies.