These days everyone seems to be talking about mental health. Especially the shockingly terrible state of young people’s mental health. We know that gen z has the highest rates of anxiety, depression, and chronic stress of all age groups. We know that they’re struggling academically and socially. And we know that we, the adults, are the ones responsible, we have to do something about it.
Young people themselves are lifting up this priority. In every survey I’ve seen, young people list mental health as among their top personal concerns. They’re asking for support, looking for resources, and trying to figure out how to get through another day.
This overwhelming cultural focus on mental health is the result of narrative shifts won by the healing justice movement since the pandemic and the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. Cultural organizers across the country have reminded us of the need to “rest as resistance” and the importance of putting ourselves first, especially if we hold marginalized identities, in these capitalist systems.
At some point, however, healing justice became “mental health” - with two different underlying meanings and messages. When foundations and schools talk about mental health, they’re rarely taking a hard look at the policies they’re promoting that are detrimental to their students’ mental health. Instead, they’re looking at how young people can take care of themselves as individuals, providing bandaids in the face of ongoing, systemic violence.
These adult-led interventions often end up resembling school - a bunch of adults lecturing them about what they need to do. One student I work with said their school promised to emphasize mental health this year - all they did was put the suicide hotline on the student planners. Another student told me about a “wellness day” they had that ended with a cringey performance about time management. Another youth organizer is stressing about a revolving door of teachers in a class that’s supposed to prepare them for standardized tests and college applications. These are not conditions in which young people can grieve, heal, be vulnerable, or reflect on their growth.
Our collective focus on individualized student “mental health” conveniently side steps the legitimate reasons why young people are suffering, many of which are already under our control. When I talk to students about what would actually improve their health and wellness, one of the first things to come up is less homework. Many students report staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning doing homework, and the negative effect exhaustion has on their mood and learning at school. Yet I never hear adults advocating for an end, pause, or reduction to homework as a mental health initiative.
The same goes for other student suggestions - like longer breaks, better food, flexible dress codes, culturally sustaining curriculum, gender equity, healthy and restorative conflict management, and actual mental health care professionals present at their schools. These are real solutions that will lead to tangible improvements in the lives of young people, but schools don’t like them because they aren’t easy or politically popular.
If school administrators won’t implement these changes, adult allies will have to bend the rules to make them happen. Teachers can stop assigning as much homework, or allow makeup work without penalties. Parents can allow their kids to take “mental health days” off from school. All of us can validate the frustrations and grievances raised by youth activists and support them in getting their voices heard by decision makers.
Every time I hear schools start to brag about their supposed focus on mental health, I think of one of Malcolm X’s most famous quotes, which I think applies as much to schools and mental health as it does to the United States and racism. “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there.”
Schools want young people to “heal,” but they haven’t even admitted they’re contributing to the problem. And they certainly haven’t stopped. School administrators today are proposing longer school days, stricter rules, and even mass surveillance as solutions to made-up problems like “learning loss.” As Malcolm X taught us, you can’t heal in a space where you’re actively being hurt - and schools are often hurting young people.
Adults are the ones responsible, and we absolutely have to do something about it. We should focus on ending those harmful policies if we want to end the mental health crisis among young people.