In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, and research and reporting has shown the trend to only be worsening since then.
In the 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey conducted by the CDC, data showed 44% of U.S. high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and nearly 20% seriously considered committing suicide.
In a 2022 article in N.C. Health News, Gary Maslow, associate professor in the Duke Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and co-director of the Division of Child & Family Mental Health & Community Psychiatry, called the rising youth mental health crisis “the next wave of the pandemic.”
Dr. Taren Coley, double-board certified psychiatrist and director of child & adolescent services at HopeWay, a Charlotte-based nonprofit organization offering mental health services at different levels of care, said the pandemic had a residual impact on youth mental health concerns, from which we are still learning the effects.
As reported by The Charlotte Ledger in a collaborative reporting series with N.C. Health News in September, more than one in five North Carolina high school students seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021. And, according to N.C. Health News, the percentage of students in NC who reported feeling sad or hopeless surged from 28% to 43% over the past decade.
Charlotte is of course not immune to these national trends, said Jennifer De La Jara, at-large representative on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education (CMS BOE).
It’s believed that the struggles have been heavily influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, but other factors are at play as well.
Now in an attempt to curb the effects of further mental decline, the CMS BOE has filed a lawsuit against social media platforms Meta, Google, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, and Snap Inc., following the lead of other school districts across the country that are attempting to hold those companies accountable for the damage they’ve allegedly caused to student’s mental health and the burden it adds to school districts.
Social media in CMS schools
In a press release announcing the lawsuit in late August, the CMS BOE stated that the ongoing youth mental health crisis is exacerbated by social media platforms’ targeted and addictive design. CMS is then left to bear the weight of the crisis.
The press release provides an overview of ways in which CMS has struggled to provide students with adequate mental health resources and services amidst a national crisis and deficient funding from the state legislature.
“By pursuing this legal action, the school district endeavors to alleviate the burden placed on taxpayers and secure the necessary resources to address the crisis, thereby safeguarding the well-being of its students,” the press release reads.
The CMS BOE aims to instigate a transformation of these platforms through this lawsuit to make them safer for minors and demand accountability and financial compensation.
The lawsuit aligns CMS with school districts nationwide, as the Wall Street Journal reported in July that nearly 200 school districts across the country had filed lawsuits against social media platforms. Seattle Public Schools (SPS) was the first to file early this year.
“Social media companies intentionally design their platforms to get young users addicted to their services and exploit their developing minds for profit,” said Phil Federico, an attorney representing the CMS BOE, in the CMS press release. “When children become addicted to social media and are presented with an endless stream of harmful content, they are far more likely to develop depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health effects.
“Through this litigation,” Federico continued, “we plan to compel social media companies to fully address the harms caused by their platforms and compensate school districts for the resources they’ve been forced to utilize to try and mitigate this youth mental health crisis.”
Coley confirmed social media is a major component of the challenges adolescents face today.
“There’s just so much more accessibility to things on the internet that can be negative or damaging,” she told Queen City Nerve. “Social media opens up a lot of comparison, anxiety, bullying, and … we want to help limit exposure to those types of things.”
“Social media is ubiquitous,” said Brent Croker, a school psychologist at Bailey Middle School and CMS’ School Psychologist of the Year. “The media and the internet, it’s kind of like the Wild, Wild West right now.”
Croker echoed Federico and Coley’s concerns, saying the addictive nature of social media influences kids to engage in risky behaviors and intensifies the human tendency to compare, a double standard specifically pushed toward young girls.
De La Jara said her son acknowledged that in-person classes are better for him because he has to put his phone away.
“If our students are telling us that they want to make those choices, then we should listen to them,” De La Jara said in response.
“The Board’s decision to take legal action reflects our unwavering commitment to the welfare of our students and to ensure that social media corporations are held responsible for their contribution to the mental health challenges faced by CMS students,” Elyse Dashew, CMS Board Chair, stated in the press release.
Dashew and De La Jara told Queen City Nerve they did not wish to speak to the active litigation outside of the official statement released by the board, but they both reiterated their firm support as board members and mothers.
What’s going on in schools?
With the 2023 school year in full swing, students and families are more than aware of the difficult transition going back to school has on kids, Coley told Queen City Nerve. The change can affect a student’s mental health, increasing anxiety and stress.
To help students emotionally prepare for school, Coley suggests parents get them back into routines, manage their expectations, set a daily schedule, keep open communication and set aside a time when kids can check in with them.
The struggle doesn’t end after the first week of school, after all.
Laura Bakosh, co-founder and CEO of school-based mindfulness program Inner Explorer, said 80% of Charlotte students experience chronic stress, which changes brain networks, inhibits learning and thinking and brings about mental health disorders, causing students to perform at a suboptimal level, both academically and behaviorally.
To combat this, CMS Psychological Services uses Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) as a vehicle to examine student academic, emotional and behavioral needs, Croker said.
“We’re the front lines,” he said. “We’re the ones, a lot of times, noticing these issues with the kids. And we just wanna work with the kids and the families on making things better.”
The battle can seem all the more grave when you’re outnumbered. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the suggested ratio of school psychologists to students should not exceed one psychologist for every 500 students. In CMS, there are 1,500 students to every one school psychologist, De La Jara said.
“That’s how far the disparities [are] of the ideal goal and our reality of where we are,” she said. “We’re already not meeting the needs … of what our students deserve.”
Although CMS’ Psychology Department has made moves to lessen the ratio of students to school psychologists, there are still school districts in North Carolina that don’t have a single psychologist assigned to their district, Croker said.
While it is a school psychologist’s job to help kids, they can’t possibly help all of them when there are so many, Bakosh acknowledged. “It must be an incredibly frustrating job to be on the ground like that and not be able to serve the kids that need it.”
Psychologists aren’t the only ones who can help, though.
“The mental health of kids is going to be tied to the community, the parents, the schools that they’re in and not just in a vacuum,” Croker said. “When we’re working with kids, we also want to work with families.”
Croker said parents can keep an eye out for warning signs in their children at home, which include major changes in behavior or disengaging from things they previously enjoyed. Parents can help their children feel safe enough to confide in them, promoting open and honest conversations about their mental health.
“You can talk about these things before they become bigger problems later,” Croker said.
It’s also crucial for parents to communicate with the school and go to parent-teacher conferences to find out how their kids are doing in school beyond what their grades are.
Talking directly with teachers can overstep the shortcomings of recent policy changes in accordance with Senate Bill 49, altering the opt-out option for student well-being surveys to an opt-in mandate, meaning students will no longer automatically participate in the surveys.
Out of 142,000 students last year, CMS only had 324 opt-out of the well-being survey, De La Jara told Queen City Nerve. Next year, CMS will be tasked with getting 122,000 families to opt in to the survey.
The information gathered from the surveys informs decisions that the CMS Student Services department makes, including oversight of school psychologists, and advises advocacy work with state legislators around the importance of adding more school psychologists and third-party providers funded by the county.
The potential domino effect caused by the lack of survey responses may interfere with the ability of CMS to continue to provide mental health services as the data may not be reflective of current teenage struggles.
“I’m very concerned that the data that we will get will not be as statistically relevant,” De La Jara said.
“[Everyone] wants young people to be healthy, whether that’s mentally healthy, physically healthy, psychologically healthy,” Dashew said about the policy. “And in order to give our kids the support that they need to be healthy, we need to be able to ask how they are doing as parents, as a school system and as a community.”
Where can kids get help?
In the absence of well-being surveys and sufficient funding for student mental health services, third-party providers have stepped up to aid CMS students.
GreenLight Fund Charlotte, a national network of sites using community-driven approaches to tackle racial and economic inequalities, announced in September its multi-year investment in Inner Explorer, a nonprofit organization started in Massachusetts to support the mental health and well-being of students, teachers and administrators.
Inner Explorer utilizes 40 years of scientific evidence on mindfulness’ impact on behavior and mental health disorders to aid in the mental health crisis in schools. CMS schools partnering with Inner Explorer access a program for 5-10 minutes each day for a guided mindfulness experience, engaging students and teachers in the classroom and family members via a separate app.
“Mindfulness attenuates chronic stress,” said Bakosh. “It changes [and] reorients the brain to that higher order processing, so it slows down and stops chronic stress and improves thinking and learning.”
Over the summer, Dottie Rose Foundation, International House, Youth Meditation, National Black Child Development Institute and several CMS elementary schools piloted Inner Explorer, reaching over 1,500 students. A full rollout reaching 25,000 students is planned for this academic year.
HopeWay, a nonprofit mental health treatment center for adults, will open a new Oakhurst Commons location in early 2024 for adolescents struggling with mental health and eating disorders.
Although the organization began solely serving adults, the new addition will serve youth in response to the increased need for mental health services, reserving time and space for students and offering tutoring as part of the program.
“We wanted to expand because … there’s been a significant rise in adolescent mental health concerns for a variety of different reasons,” said Coley. “And we know the importance of early intervention and diagnosis, which can be just really critical at helping to succeed and function.”
The Adolescent Mental Health Program will treat teens ages 12-17 and the Eating Disorder Program will treat the same age range plus young adults ages 18-25.
CMS also offers direct support services to students and families through social workers, behavior modification technicians (BMTs), school-based counseling with third-party providers and more.
“There are many, many efforts that the school system is engaged with to try to meet the needs of our students and their families,” De La Jara said. “I think one of the concerns, though, is that there’s just not enough.”
That’s why advocacy and awareness of student mental health services will be so important going forward, De La Jara and Croker said.
Knowing what mental health support CMS already has in place is key in pushing for growth where they’re falling short and ensuring schools don’t lose what services they already have.
“I’m actually proud of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for making decisions based on the needs of our students,” De La Jara said. “Because there are kids that need these services now.”
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