High rates of youth anxiety and depression have been a concern for years, and the problem has only worsened.
The CDC reported earlier this year that the number of adolescents who were visiting hospital emergency room departments for mental health conditions rose dramatically since 2019. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics confirms this trend. Using an analysis of Illinois hospitals between 2016 and 2021, the researchers found emergency room visits for suicidal ideation increased 59 percent for children ages 5 to 19.
Various school districts are trying to implement measures to address youth anxiety and depression, and the federal government is allocating hundreds of millions of dollars toward the youth mental health crisis.
It’s understandable to want to help hurting children and teenagers, but funneling more money and resources into school systems that could themselves be the source of youth anxiety and depression may be counterproductive. “Schools, almost by design, are factories for creating anxiety,” says Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray.
Gray, author of the book Free To Learn, is a longtime critic of forced schooling and an advocate of self-directed education. He cites research showing the link between youth anxiety and diagnoses of various learning disabilities, and argues that the root problem is the overall structure of conventional schooling that children are forced to tolerate.
In his Psychology Today blog, Gray states: “Instead of admitting that the school system is disordered, an abnormal environment for children’s learning, unable to accommodate normal human variation, the school bureaucracy chooses to label the children as disordered, that is, as having some kind of biologically based abnormality, such as ADHD or a specific learning disorder (e.g., dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia). The psychiatric community obliges by providing official diagnostic criteria and categories to support the labels.”
Creating alternatives to conventional schooling can be a path forward in reducing youth anxiety and letting go of destructive labels. In Mississippi, two education entrepreneurs are doing just that. Dr. Stephanie Harper and Tekeeta Funchess are former teachers in the Jackson Public Schools who launched a microschool, Harper Learning Academy, in August. Located in Byram, Mississippi, their microschool serves just over a dozen, mixed-age students with two dedicated teachers, in addition to Harper and Funchess.
In my podcast episode this week, Harper and Funchess talk about the ways in which labels can disempower students and lead to anxiety and related mental health concerns. They have already seen first-hand how their microschool environment, with an emphasis on personalized, mastery-based learning and celebrating each child’s unique gifts, has been transformational for some students.
Funchess, who has a graduate degree in computer science and taught mathematics in the public schools, explained that her daughter struggled for years with diagnosed anxiety and an ADHD label. Now, after being at the microschool for only a few months, her daughter is completely off all of her anxiety and ADHD medications and no longer needs counseling for anxiety issues.
Funchess went on to explain that in the first few weeks at the microschool, her daughter was having lunch with one of her teachers and told the teacher that she had a diagnosis of ADHD. According to Funchess: “Her teacher just responded, I don’t see ADHD. I see a child that learns differently that I’m going to support. And I honestly don’t think the teacher knew [about the label].”
When the learning environment is changed to support the individual child, issues such as ADHD cease to be problematic. “What does it mean to have ADHD?” asks Peter Gray. “Basically, it means failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling,” he explains. Microschooling and similar educational models shed standard schooling conditions and associated labels, and focus instead on the needs, interests, and abilities of each individual child.
As families and educators deal with a rising youth mental health crisis, they should look to microschools and other non-traditional educational models for a possible remedy. Shifting away from a large, standardized, one-size-fits-all education system toward smaller, more personalized, more self-directed learning environments could help to improve both academic performance and emotional well-being for today’s young people.