The conversation around mental health has taken center stage, with Selena Gomez, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, and Pac12 football players emphasizing the need to pay attention to warning signs of depression, anxiety, and chronic stress, and reminding us that it’s OK to ask for help.
Mental health is central to our quality of life. It is also a cornerstone of education. Prioritizing mental health is essential to make sure that students can learn, and teachers can teach.
One of the best ways to foster mental health is through building healthy relationships. That is why the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) launched the Care and Connection Campaign; to encourage schools throughout the state to create time and space each day for students and staff to nurture social bonds, and to foster welcoming, inclusive communities.
Decades of research shows that caring for and connecting with others positively impacts brain development, enhances learning, and bolsters stress resilience. This means that making time and space for reflection and connection is fundamental to learning, growth and development particularly in times of challenge and uncertainty.
School districts across the state can promote student mental health by dedicating time each day to activities that build care, connection and community, and allowing staff and students the opportunity to make meaning of their experiences.
Many of Oregon’s schools have already started the new year with welcoming banners and celebrations, with some literally rolling out red carpets or bringing in the marching band. Staff across the state are using “getting to know you” exercises, and greeting students at the classroom door each day. They’re using art, music, movement, nature, and fun games like building towers out of dried spaghetti and marshmallows as opportunities for students to express themselves and get to know each other before diving into books and learning.
These types of activities and trust building exercises are particularly important and meaningful now, as many students spent much of last year apart from their peers and trusted adults outside their home. There are many students, families and staff for whom returning to in-person school may be particularly stressful, such as those in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, or who have personally been impacted by illness or loss. These include members of tribes here in Oregon and Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities, LGBTQ students, and those experiencing a disability, navigating poverty, and many in Oregon’s rural communities.
We must make sure all students, families and staff are recognized for their strength, and receive the support they need throughout the year.
The best part about building communities of care and connection is that it doesn’t have to stop with the first weeks of school. Once students, families and staff begin to incorporate care and connection activities into school and home life, these actions can become a daily practice that builds strong, trusting bonds.
Together we can build healthy, welcoming, and strong communities across Oregon, and give students, families and staff the tools they need to meet the challenges of today, and pave the way for a strong tomorrow.
B Grace Bullock, PhD. is the Senior Mental Health Officer at the Oregon Department of Education. She may be reached at Grace.Bullock@ode.state.or.us