Paying attention to mental health in schools is more important than ever as youth experience many transitions, anxieties, and stressors. Unfortunately, in recent years, the global pandemic has only worsened the mental illness rate amongst our youth.
It is important to focus on the physical and mental effects of ACEs on students to emphasize the need for positive interventions and care. ACEs refer to a specific kind of trauma in a home environment like neglect, emotional and physical abuse, and household dysfunction that occur before the age of 18. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are linked to poor mental health and suicidal behaviors, even among students who only reported one or two ACEs. According to the CDC, experiencing ACEs often leads to poor life outcomes such as significantly increased risk for heart disease, depression, and obesity. Exposure, without positive intervention can lead to a Toxic Stress Response in youth, which can lead to even more serious health conditions like cancer, stroke, and Alzheimer's later in life. We can clearly see that untreated effects from ACEs can worsen students' physical and mental health throughout their lives. It is critical that we catch signs and symptoms of ACEs and include preventative measures into school programming to mitigate this spiral of negative health outcomes.
In addition to the negative physical and mental health effects of ACEs, exposure can negatively impact students’ academic and healthy relationship success. To most, the impact of ACEs feel like a constant fire alarm that they can't turn off, disrupting relaxation and focus in an environment where they should be learning and building healthy relationships with their peers and teachers. ACEs often link students to special education, suspension, expulsion, and even failing a grade. Middle and high school students with three or more ACEs are five times more likely to have attendance issues, and three times more likely to experience academic failure. In a 2014 study by doctors David Murphey and Kristin Moore, of youth with an ACE score of 3 or higher, 48% reported low engagement in school, 44% had trouble with emotional regulation in the classroom, and 49% had trouble completing academic tasks. Without supportive relationships with adults and trauma-informed school systems, ACEs trigger biological and psychological stress responses that lead to these negative outcomes.
The negative mental and physical health outcomes of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are preventable yet common in high school and middle school students, and have only worsened since the pandemic. The CDC found: “about 73.1% of U.S. high school students reported at least one ACE during the pandemic while 53.2% reported two, 12% reported three” (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report). Due to stay at home orders from the pandemic, youth were stuck at home when relationships outside of their home environment are vital to their mental health and development. Since ACEs stem from the home environment and spill over into academic and social life, it is not surprising that the effect on youth has worsened. Given how common ACEs and toxic stress are, schools must develop trauma-informed programs and spaces that support students' mental health.
The student-teacher and student-counselor relationship can help students through anything, and learning about Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a great start in designing an effective mental health care system for youth in schools. PBIS' framework aims to engage schools and families in a shared positive vision, and implement personalized, comprehensive care for individuals' mental health. A few PBIS strategies for promoting optimal mental health care, with special attention to ACEs, include promotion of restorative mindfulness practices, supportive relationships through therapy, support groups, and social-emotional learning classes.
If your students are exhibiting signs of ACEs, using a digital tool is a great way to help students support their own mental health in and outside of the classroom. Neolth is a digital stress and mental health support program for students and educators. We’re on a mission to help students stress less, build resilience, and become a part of our compassionate community. Our app helps students when they’re feeling overwhelmed with personalized self-guided content for their mental health journey. Students turn to Neolth to feel less alone - learning from peer stories featured on the app. There are many ways schools can help students with ACEs, and Neolth is just one example.
In summary, what can schools do to help students with ACEs?
Start the conversation around mental health to reduce stigma and help students feel less alone.
Connect students to personalized mental health care through Neolth to meet students where they are and begin to help them cultivate an inner voice to prevent and manage stress.
Come up with shared community values aimed to reduce bullying and support teacher, student, and counselor mental health.
Promotion of mindfulness practices and restorative activities within school culture, with trauma-informed guided meditations.
Peer support groups for students who experience ACEs to help them feel less alone.
This article was written by Neolth's Editorial intern, Ginger Freeman.
Ginger Freeman (she/her) is a senior at Santa Clara University studying Psychology, Public Health, and Asian Studies. Once she graduates, she plans to pursue a masters in counseling to become a licensed therapist. She is passionate about making mental health care more accessible and personalized, as well as applying zen theory to traditional psychotherapy. Through starting the conversation around mental health she hopes to reduce stigma and help people feel less alone! Outside of school, she enjoys spending time outside with friends, hot yoga, meditation, and listening to live music.