OPINION: Adolescent mental health is a crisis in need of a solution – Portland Tribune | Wonder Mind Kids

Katie Riley: “After-school and summer programs…make a huge difference in academic and lifelong success.”

Teens are expected to do well in school, get along with everyone, and prepare for the future.

Meanwhile, they watch the news, see the environment burn or flood, politicians struggle and fail to address issues, illustrating the inability of the adults depicted to offer informed advice or provide examples of problem-solving.

To top it off, adolescence is a time of normal identity-finding, awkwardness, and impulsiveness. The result is a mishmash of some positive activity, rebellion (quietly or loudly), peer activity, solitude, and attention to peer behavior and opinions. Unfortunately, youth suicides have risen and test scores have fallen.

Solutions have been suggested. A recent opinion piece in The Oregonian proclaimed that schools need more counselors and relaxation areas to help middle and high school students. Another article said students should have tutors, free lunches and more class time.

These approaches would help, but require more staff in schools and are expensive. Schools cannot be expected to solve all problems.

Also, prior to the pandemic, students’ attention has waned due to several distractions in their lives, and they have largely returned to the mostly outdated curriculum content and teachings as before.

Adolescents need positive adult or young adult role models and positive activities where they can find support and outlets for creative energies. The unstructured time before and especially after school leaves a large proportion of young adults unsupervised and in front of a television or video game, or just “hanging out”.

If they play sports, band, music or any other activity, it makes a difference. Not every child likes or can play sports. Often children from economically disadvantaged families cannot afford these activities or have transport problems to get either to the activity or to go home.

At the same time, parents feel pressured to keep their jobs, make sure their children are safe and keep up in school. During the pandemic, they’ve often had the added burden of getting work done while keeping their kids positively occupied. Many parents have told me about the impossibility of completing work tasks while their children fight in the background or “photo bombard” their important Zoom meetings.

Many of these parents are still working from home and are relieved that their children are in school but are still dealing with the challenges of having their children at home after school. Parents who work odd hours in retail or other personal jobs need to wonder if their children are doing their homework or playing video games or experimenting with other negative behaviors while they are at work.

One proven solution went unmentioned in newspaper articles – more opportunities for after-school and summer programs (not just more school).

We know that these programs make a huge difference in academic and lifelong success. Children participating in these programs have opportunities to receive homework help, have fun, be exposed to new ideas, and plan and implement activities and serve others as a team. Many articles tout the benefits or return on investment (ROI) of early childhood programs, but additional research shows that offering programs to elementary, middle, and high school students has additional benefits. Portland has the Portland Children’s Levy, which funds after-school programs, and Multnomah County has the PreK4ll program, which initially serves a limited number of 3- and 4-year-olds, but these programs are not found anywhere else in the state.

Yes it would be great for all 3 and 4 year olds to have a pre-kindergarten. (Free programs are suggested.) Sliding options could be offered for elementary school students and “club-style” programs for middle and high school students.

When children of any age feel supported and purposeful, it would make a huge difference in their mental health, academic achievement, and future well-being for both teens and the community.

Katie Riley, Ed.D., is President of Washington County Kids, a non-profit organization that supports and advocates after-school and summer programs for school-age children.

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