In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021, highlighting trends and experiences of U.S. high school students. The findings are sobering. Forty-two percent of high school students surveyed experienced persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness and 10% of all students had actually attempted suicide.
Even before the pandemic began, more than 1 in 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. And many students are still struggling:
- 70% of public schools reported that since the start of the pandemic, the percentage of students who sought mental health services increased, according to an April survey from the Institute of Education Sciences.
- The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory warning of a youth mental health crisis in December 2021, following a declaration earlier that fall of a “national emergency in child and adolescent mental health” by a coalition of pediatric groups.
- 88% of college students polled in a January 2022 survey by TimelyMD, a higher ed telehealth provider, said there’s a mental health crisis at colleges and universities in the United States.
Mental health is a foundational part of an individual’s overall well-being, impacting their cognitive function, physical health, relationships, and overall quality of life. Research has shown that promoting mental health increases protective factors that might lead to larger mental health issues or diagnoses later on. These environments include: minimizing harmful factors; reinforcing pro-social behaviors; limiting problematic behaviors; and the psychological promotion of goals with flexibility.
Fall brings us back to school, which is the perfect time to reflect on the mental health support afterschool can offer students. In fact, in an anticipated event to mark the beginning of the school year, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona traveled through five states in the midwest for the “Back to School Bus Tour 2023: Raise the Bar,” in which Secretary Cardona underscored the Administration’s commitment to helping students recover from impacts of the pandemic, focusing on programs and resources in career pathways, afterschool time, AND mental health.
There has never been a better time to invest in children’s mental health. Unprecedented funding is available: The Department of Health and Human Services has allocated $35 million for mental health services and suicide prevention programs for youth. Congress increased appropriations for the Mental Health Block Grant by $100 million to help state and local governments fill gaps in services. And the Department of Education now has $144 million each year for the next five years to award to state education agencies and districts for mental health support.
For young people, afterschool programs have always been safe spaces to build social-emotional skills alongside learning and interacting with others. Out-of-school time offers opportunities for students to explore with their peers, work in teams, and develop their overall self-awareness and confidence. The cultivation of such important skills, in turn, positively contributes to a child’s mental health and general well-being.
Here are some of the key ways that afterschool programs, specifically programs offering science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning experiences, can contribute to better mental health and overall youth outcomes:
Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking Skills
Solving problems is a fundamental component of learning skills in math, engineering and science. Afterschool STEM activities frequently involve complex problem-solving tasks, while giving students a low-pressure environment to search for solutions. These experiences not only help advance a young person’s investigative and analytical skills, but also give kids an opportunity to address challenges in a healthy and constructive manner.
In fact, research shows that high-quality, expanded STEM learning opportunities can improve academic outcomes, increase college and career readiness, and foster positive youth development. They also offer spaces for youth-led solutions to real-world problems which will lead to a a new generation of problem solvers in STEM fields.
By giving students real-world, hands-on opportunities to fail and try again, like those provided in out-of-school settings, we help them learn to cope with more challenging emotions like frustration and disappointment. This builds social-emotional capabilities, like resilience and perseverance, that students can utilize in other environments. In particular, these skills support future employability for students, which has been identified as a social determinant of health.
Teamwork and Communication
Collaboration and group projects are another common element in afterschool learning time. Participating students share their ideas and learn to work together, which elevates their communication skills. Working in teams helps support the development of positive conflict resolution.
Not only are these important interpersonal skills that can support a student’s social development, they are also highly sought after skills that can greatly impact a young person’s future, including navigating the workforce and relationships.
Activities outside of school are fun, supportive environments that allow students to take risks while building new skills and exploring their talents. From presentation and public-speaking opportunities to new ways to take on leadership roles, students develop a sense of confidence and self-awareness. When students are able to complete projects, whether they are successful or not, they can learn from failures and better understand their own self-efficacy. Overall, participating in STEM projects, competitions, and afterschool activities give students a sense of what they enjoy and a sense of achievement, which positively impact their self-esteem and belief in their own abilities.
In addition to the competencies listed, afterschool spaces also offer students access to caring adults, role models, opportunities to express creativity, and leadership. These learning opportunities can also appeal to youth who may be disengaged or struggling with traditional classroom instruction. The time spent in afterschool settings is an invaluable opportunity to build important social and emotional skills, while also contributing to a child’s well-being.
An Escalating Need
The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to worsening mental health and substance use outcomes among children and adolescents. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a new report which describes the urgent need to improve crisis response services for children, youth, and families and provides guidance on how communities can address the existing gaps in care for youth. This report, and others, acknowledge the important role that community organizations and afterschool activities can play in effectively preventing and addressing mental health crises for young people.
While the pandemic negatively impacted learning in STEM subjects, increasing investments in quality afterschool STEM programs will help re-engage youth by offering all learners opportunities to build perseverance and agency, by stimulating career interests through fostering a sense of identity and belonging in STEM, by building STEM-specific knowledge and skills, and by providing joyful learning experiences that demonstrate the relevance and applicability of STEM in daily life. Recognizing the contributions and importance of out-of-school activities is critical to expand access to more students, ensuring that all young people are able to better manage their mental health.
Pre-pandemic data were already pointing to the need for major investments to support the mental health of young people. Now, it’s more critical than ever to expand access to out-of-school programs, with the current reality showing afterschool programs being at their maximum capacity. More resources and funding are needed to retain afterschool educators, ensure general operation, and offer learning opportunities to more students that will make a difference in their mental health.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health issue, the following resources may be of use: