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Linking Mental Health and Education to Give Tennessee Kids a Healthier Future

Frist: At a recent symposium, national, state and local leaders came together to discuss the crisis. Here are 5 key takeaways.

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In 2007 — the year I retired as Senate majority leader — Tennessee got a wakeup call when a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report awarded our state an “F” for low academic performance. After conversations with stakeholders statewide to develop a shared vision for improving student outcomes, one thing became clear: Tennessee had to begin making significant changes in education.

That’s why, in 2009, I created a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization called the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), with a mission to catalyze transformative change in Tennessee education. There's still more work to do, but since SCORE's founding we have seen rapid growth and achievement gains statewide. From 2011 to 2017, Tennessee made some of the fastest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and data show that Tennessee’s recovery from pandemic learning loss was among the most robust of any state.

Today, however, Tennessee faces another wakeup call: the youth mental health crisis. Worsened by the pandemic and exacerbated by social media, this demands urgent attention.

In this, Tennessee is not alone. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 4 in 10 (42%) high school students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health. More than 1 in 5 students (22%) seriously considered suicide in 2021.

Often overlooked and untreated, poor mental health has a ripple effect that impacts learning and overall development inside and outside the classroom. Physical, mental and emotional health are intrinsically tied to the ability for young people to realize their full potential. As a former physician, I see a need to examine areas where education and health intersect and to facilitate meaningful discussions that seek solutions to related challenges. That’s why I established a collaborative health movement called NashvilleHealth.

Recently, SCORE and NashvilleHealth held a symposium to begin the hard work of addressing the student mental health crisis. Alongside national, state and local leaders, we held meaningful conversations, backed by data and focused on solutions, to spark collective learning and action. Here are five takeaways that we believe can strengthen student mental health and further the discussion.

Increase Access to Data

Despite a wealth of research, there are clear gaps that limit the ability of Tennessee leaders to assess the mental well-being of youth in our state. In response, the Belmont Data Collaborative released a report in April that included a Mental Well-Being Index looking at all 95 counties in the state.

Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)

Drawing on publicly available datasets, the index makes clear which areas have the highest mental health vulnerabilities, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of risk factors at the county and local levels.

By analyzing community data alongside broader research and external influences like education and economic indicators, education leaders and policymakers can better assess our strategies and move forward in a positive way.

Develop Local Solutions for Local Needs

Encouraging localized initiatives is key, as positive adult relationships and supportive environments have a significant impact on student outcomes. For example, during the symposium, Superintendent Selina Sparkman of rural Bledsoe County Schools highlighted the effectiveness of its Project AWARE grant, part of a program that helps state and local education agencies deliver school-based mental health programs and services. She shared the powerful story of a student who had not been able to eat with his peers in the school cafeteria since starting elementary school but began to thrive after receiving support through Project AWARE.

With mental health challenges continuing to rise in higher education, Dr. Zainab Okolo from The JED Foundation elaborated on the foundation’s efforts to help colleges address this crisis. Through the foundation’s technical assistance program, JED Campus, schools achieve measurable improvements in student mental health. Colleges completing the program reported that students were 25% less likely to report a suicide attempt, 13% less likely to report suicide planning and 10% less likely to report suicidal ideation.

Streamline and Share Best Practices

Through the coordinated school health model developed by the CDC, school districts across Tennessee have been able to connect physical, emotional and social health with learning. Other states have done the same: Across the country, similarly effective initiatives are extending across college campuses, schools and communities. Examples include Sandy Hook Promise’s prevention programs, a learning community of colleges and universities working to develop policy recommendations through the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and The Jed Foundation, the Harvard Center for Digital Thriving and Communities In Schools. A Governor’s Playbook: Strengthening Youth Mental Health, developed by the National Governors’ Association, contains examples of successful policies and programs that states can emulate.

Elevate Student Voices

Importantly, students must be included in discussions impacting their mental health. Among Generation Z (11- to 27-year-olds in 2024), greater school engagement is related to more positive life outlooks. For this, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Students come from diverse backgrounds with diverse experiences and needs. Initiatives that seek to implement solutions for their mental health must take a diverse range of perspectives into account. These can be much more powerful and accessible when they come from students and peers.

Collaborate to Create Meaningful Change

There are no easy answers or quick fixes to this crisis. By connecting the dots between education and mental health, leaders in Tennessee and across the nation can build more resilient and supportive systems that empower all children to reach their full potential. While schools can play an important role in supporting student mental well-being, the crisis is too big for one group or policymaker to solve. The challenge should not rest solely on the shoulders of schools, educators or health care providers. It demands collective action from all of us, working together, to better understand data, explore research, share best practices and engage in deep discussions. As a member of the Aspen Health Strategy Group, I will be delving deeper into the topic of youth mental health.

In Tennessee and beyond, important conversations connecting mental health and education are gaining momentum. As Tennessee leaders heed the urgent call to support our students, there is a need to better understand the extent of the crisis, continue exploring connections and innovations across health and education systems, and spark collective recognition and action.

This crisis affects all of us — our children, our families and our communities. By leveraging data, research and a shared commitment to student well-being, education leaders, policymakers and advocates must continue to collaborate and illuminate the path forward to build a brighter, healthier future for generations to come.

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