Curt Merlau: Indiana must address mental health crisis among students

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint
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Amid the discussion about the need for legislative leadership in addressing Indiana’s literacy crisis, we must acknowledge the profound connection between mental health and literacy achievement. The mental well-being of our students is intricately intertwined with their academic success, and it is high time we take proactive measures to ensure the holistic development of our young Hoosiers.

While state government has made commendable efforts, there remains a substantial gap in comprehensively addressing student mental health throughout Indiana. It is incumbent upon us to step up and lead the charge in prioritizing our students’ emotional and psychological welfare as parents, business leaders and concerned citizens. Legislatively, this can be achieved by adopting evidence-based models and allocating the necessary resources to support our schools in this critical endeavor. As business leaders, we can do more to promote and support the overall well-being of our students and their educators.

The current state of student mental health in Indiana paints a stark picture. Indiana ranks 26th in the nation for the prevalence of mental illness among youth, representing a poorer showing from its 2015 ranking. Alarming statistics reveal that nearly half of high school students in Indiana report experiencing prolonged feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Tragically, Indiana’s youth suicide rate has consistently exceeded the national average since 1999, making it the second-leading cause of death among our teenagers.

Indiana’s educational institutions have historically played a pivotal role in providing access to children’s mental health services. However, recent surveys conducted among Indiana’s educational professionals and parents reveal significant concerns regarding rising student mental health needs. Furthermore, school counselors are overwhelmed, with an alarming counselor-to-student ratio far above the recommended standard. A recent legislative package, House Enrolled Act 1002, focusing on statewide college and career-centered education, coincides with this crisis.

A comprehensive approach to student mental health is the need of the hour. Research has consistently demonstrated a strong positive association between mental health and academic achievement. Students with robust mental health tend to perform better academically and exhibit improved social and emotional behaviors. Indiana must invest in evidence-based models that encompass academic, behavioral and mental health dimensions to bridge the gap between commitment and capacity.

In conclusion, it is high time for Indiana to take decisive steps to address the mental health needs of our students. We must prioritize their well-being not only in rhetoric but also through concrete actions. This involves adopting evidence-based models, reducing counselor-to-student ratios and increasing the number of school psychologists. It means providing comprehensive mental health education and training for educators and staff and creating a nurturing environment where students feel emotionally, academically and socially supported.

As Hoosiers, we bear the responsibility of safeguarding and nurturing the well-being of our youth. Our future hinges on the success and resilience of the next generation. It’s time for Indiana to lead by example and prioritize the mental health of our students. In doing so, we enhance academic outcomes and pave the way for a brighter future for all our young Hoosiers. Let us make Indiana a model for the nation in supporting student mental health and well-being.•

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Merlau, who holds a doctorate in education from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, has been an educator and administrator in Indiana and is a public-school parent.

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