OPINION: In our ongoing mental health crisis, students and their parents are struggling and need our help

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As both the surgeon general and President Biden have acknowledged, student mental health is a national crisis. Today’s kids have suffered through uncertainty and fear during the pandemic. They’re worried about active shooters and friends dying by suicide, while living much of their lives under the (often unbearable) influence of social media.

Understandably, parents like me wonder what we can do, but may feel unqualified to offer help ourselves or ashamed to ask for assistance.

Supporting a child’s mental health is like caring for a child’s physical wounds: Failure to address small problems allows them to become major issues.

At one point, our medical system didn’t believe in hand-washing, which led to lots of minor wounds becoming infected and potentially life-threatening. Similarly, families who don’t know how to help their children with small mental health problems can find themselves facing acute situations. To do right by our children, we must overcome our discomfort and put mental health issues directly in the spotlight.

That means engaging with our children in mental health conversations more deeply, both at home and in school. If we want to help children during this ongoing student mental health crisis, families need resources that are private, on-demand, accessible at home — and which make it easier for them to cut through fear and shame.

Resources are best made available through schools for three main reasons: accessibility, ready availability and affordability.

Accessibility: Every child in America is guaranteed access to public education, and most families live closer to their child’s school than to a mental health facility.

Related: Supporting students: What’s next for mental health

When I first learned that my own child had mental health needs, I was living in rural Idaho, and we had to drive three hours to get any kind of services. We made the decision as a family to move to Salt Lake City so that our son could have better access.

Availability: Even for families with nearby services, it can take three to six months to get an appointment with a psychologist or a therapist, and up to a year before you can actually see a child psychiatrist. Schools don’t suffer from the same structural bottlenecks as the health care system and are thus better suited as an on-demand resource for parents.

Affordability: Cost is also a major barrier. Insurance companies continue to cover mental health services differently than physical health services, so seeking help for a child can create a financial burden that heightens family stress.

Supporting a child’s mental health is like caring for a child’s physical wounds: Failure to address small problems allows them to become major issues.

Many families already look to their schools for mental health support. Yet when they do, they often find a scarcity of people who can help; there is a dire lack of school counselors because school budgets are also often tight.

Some cost-effective solutions for schools exist. These include allocating spaces in their existing facilities to support evidence-based mental health practices such as calm rooms and — because mental health crises can happen any time day or night — having vetted, quality information available directly through the school’s website.

Telling families and students who their school counselor and school psychologist are and how to reach them is also crucial. Families need to be continuously reminded that there’s no shame in talking to these mental health professionals — or to a teacher, principal or coach. They have huge amounts of experience in dealing with the needs of students and families.

In addition to resources available from schools, nonprofits like the Cook Center for Human Connection also offer parents guidance on problems like cutting, severe anxiety and depression, along with how to have a talk with a child who may be having suicidal thoughts.

The goal is to create a collective abundance of collaborative people who can support children’s mental health.

Related: A surprising remedy for teens in mental health crises

There’s no doubt that today’s kids are being raised in a vastly different context than their parents were raised in, and in some ways that’s a good thing. Kids today are more likely to talk about mental health because they’ve seen such discussions modeled on social media or on reality shows where contestants talk about the adversity they’ve faced.

Having kids talk about mental health normalizes it, helping families everywhere get past their shame and come together to offer children the human connections that can save their lives.

Anne Brown has been the president and CEO of the Cook Center for Human Connection since its inception.

This story about the student mental health crisis was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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