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If the thought of catering to students’ mental health brings to mind handing out chintzy plastic trophies to each and every kid for even the most minimal effort, rest assured. I’m not talking about trite self-esteem boosts. Amy McCready from Positive Parenting Solutions and Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist and creator of Self-Authoring, both agree that kind of empty praise doesn’t work anyway; it is actually discouraging. Do any of us really want a pat on the back for work we know is subpar? Real encouragement is seeing a person’s potential and empowering them to unlock it. However, in order to do this authentically, we must truly and sincerely see the child first. Which means we have to get to know them. And I believe kids want to be known, understood, cared for. Making a concerted effort to meet that need is the first and perhaps biggest step in dealing with our alarming teenage mental health problem. I’m proud to honestly say, that is what my colleagues and I do best with the kids in our care.
This past December the superintendents of Mercer County, NJ, where our Princeton center is located, released a joint statement to the community, in which they cited seven adolescent deaths by suicide in Mercer County in the 20 previous months alone. The numbers of suicide attempts and teens struggling with depression and anxiety is far more than that. I’m guessing that many or most of those kids are plenty bright, but no amount of test prep or tutoring will help them thrive. Education must BEGIN with emotional and mental health. If a child’s starting point is not “I’m okay. My world is okay,” we are building on shaky ground.