Op-Ed: Nurturing Mental Health: We Owe It to Our Children

The author in his classroom.
The author in his classroom. Gene Fashaw
A return to full classrooms has put a spotlight on our students' mental health. Conversations with peers inside of schools have centered around a range of serious concerns. Similar concerns are putting a strain on teachers and school staff across the nation. As a classroom teacher and an Afro-Latino male, I find myself in a difficult position. Prior to the pandemic, I was often disheartened by the deficit thought that plagued my classroom, especially in my Black and Brown students.

As we attempt to come back to the new normal, I see that mindset spreading like the Delta variant. The number of barriers preventing student success is troubling. That is why we need educators properly resourced and trained to do the work the right way. We need to address the root causes of our students' struggles. Our children desperately need a safety net.

This school year has been a different experience for educators everywhere. Problems include the lack of social emotional development, where many students are struggling with structure and accountability, and school systems ill-prepared to deal with these issues. In many cases, far too many students have regressed in their ability to navigate the school environment. Early on during remote learning, I remember so many difficult moments for my students. A student was temporarily displaced from their home because of their parents contracting the virus; it was such a strong feeling of fear and isolation that a suicide intervention was necessary. I know of students seeing the worst in their parents and watching their families fall apart.

Inappropriate digital behavior on social media, gaming and the internet is evident in how students are carrying themselves in the classroom. Trauma, isolation, deficit thinking and stress are words that describe this moment. There were students who both did well and struggled during remote learning. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “One in six youth have a mental health condition, like anxiety or depression, but only half receive any mental health services.” This highlights the drastic need for change.

We demand that our schools provide a quality education, but that must be paired with strong mental-health support. The link between high achievement and wellness is clear. The Education Commission of the States, an education policy group, says that “educational outcomes and overall health and wellness are inextricably linked.” As a middle-school math teacher, I see firsthand the burdens that impact student mental wellness. I also have firsthand experience in how schools are not adequately supporting students.

As a student in Denver Public Schools, I remember the most traumatic experiences were moments when I did not feel supported. Our children are experiencing that same thing now. We have a system that is not fully invested in creating a healthy environment where they thrive. I’ve had students bare their secrets to me: stories that shook me, stories that any adult would struggle with. Students are carrying the burden of these stories in our schools; it's like walking through quicksand with each step sinking them further to a place of no return. We must be prepared to support our students as they are, helping them pick up the pieces of their lives that are too heavy to lift themselves. We need a robust system in our schools and in our communities that helps our children overcome adverse circumstances. When this happens, teachers, parents and communities can see the transformation of our children to voracious learners who can tackle any problem. My whole purpose as a teacher is to see a light of curiosity and grit in my students that shines bright for a lifetime. Our schools should be the place where strong support exists for that to happen.

There are a number of effective practices that can strengthen our ability to meet the needs of students. We need social emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, cultural responsiveness, and an increase in the number of mental-health professionals. Teachers must be equipped with the resources necessary to care for the diverse needs of our students.

Deficiencies in our schools, such as implicit bias, are unacceptable. I have seen school staff who don’t understand how identity impacts classrooms, staff who would rather address behavior instead of root causes. Teachers must do the difficult work of building relationships and dismantling antiquated systems.

We need change to ensure that our education system can meet the demands of today. The Education Commission of the States presented a multi-tiered support system that includes universal prevention strategies, targeted support to a smaller group of students, and intensive services to specific students. There is no better time than now to be revolutionary in our approach to supporting our children. An increased investment in mental-health support must become the standard, as shown in the Harvard Center on the Developing Child report. It states: “We can strengthen community-based networks of services for families, primary health care for children and their caregivers, and early care and education programs in a seamless ecosystem.” Every step we take going forward must include a strong system of support for our communities.

Our children need us to make informed decisions about how they will receive a quality education. Their basic needs of survival, safety, love and esteem must be nurtured. It is then that our children can reach their full potential and shift their focus to becoming lifelong learners. This is not a dream deferred, it is a necessity of today. In order to tackle the problems of tomorrow, our children need a strong foundation laid for them. Mental health in our kids must improve; it must be one of our main goals as parents, communities and educators. We have to demand that our institutions become accountable to the well-being of our children — because they deserve it.

Gene Fashaw is an eighth-grade math teacher at High Point Academy in Aurora and a candidate for the Denver Public Schools Board of Education in District 4. He grew up in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood and is a graduate of DPS. frequently publishes up-eds and essays on matters of interest to the community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also respond to this piece.
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