I vividly remember how I felt when first greeted with this phrase. It was the start of my journey as an educator. My school leadership at the time told the story of the Maasai people. They would greet one another by saying Kasserian Ingera - meaning "And how are the children?" The response, "All the children are well." The Maasai people could provide such a response because their culture prioritized their children's well-being. It meant that the day-to-day struggles did not prevent them from caring for and protecting the young. So it was no surprise that when greeted with this phrase, I felt a great sense of responsibility and ownership. And although I felt the need to provide a response that would reflect that of the Maasai people, my lips refused to utter a word. While I could account for my children - students - I knew the reality was that all of my children were not well.
The past few years alone have generated adverse experiences that have impacted our children's overall mental health. From the COVID-19 pandemic, attacks on gender and racial identities, senseless gun violence on and off school campuses, and racial upheaval, the difficulties our children have had to carry into the school building are far too burdensome. Young people’s feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness - as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors - have increased by forty percent. The world returns to “normal” - and demands stellar academic and behavioral performances while our children's social and emotional needs remain neglected.
Across the United States, over 140,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. More than 1 in 5 students seriously considered attempting suicide, while 1 in 10 attempted suicide. Unfortunately, we see disproportionate, heightened reports of mental health struggles amongst our students from historically excluded communities due to the systemic racism that plagues our systems.
Our children are not well. Research has shown us that our children's social and emotional well-being and academic achievement are interrelated. To ensure our children learn and have the opportunity to reach their full potential, their mental health and well-being must be a priority, not relegated as a secondary concern.
Our children need learning environments that demonstrate daily that their well-being is a priority and at the center of our work. Our children need policies that acknowledge and embrace their varying identities and cultures. Our children need qualified educators and professionals who mirror their identities and understand the complexities of navigating today's world. Our children need schools and communities with adequate mental health services and support spaces that provide assessment and treatment. Our children need leaders and lawmakers who actively work to reject and replace practices that further punish and remove them from their right to receive an education. Our children need the opportunity to learn, grow, and meet all the high standards we set for them, but they cannot do so without your help. They need your commitment to take action.
This Mental Health Awareness Month, I hope we can do what is right for the well-being of our children and our future. We must work to embrace mindsets that acknowledge all children deserve to be supported and establish policies and practices that foster and develop their social, emotional, and academic well-being so we can allow our lips to utter, "All the children are well."
If you're interested in learning how LEE can help you take action on important issues like this in your community, contact us to explore the power of your leadership!
About Andrea Thurston
For over a decade, Andrea Thurston has worked toward educational equity as an educator, strategist, analyst and consultant. She has led institutions around the nation in achieving strategic plans for more inclusive campuses, increased funding for mental health departments, and recruitment and retention of Black faculty. Her platform comes from her endeavors at the University of Missouri post-Ferguson to encourage the institution to confront its inequities, using past shortcomings as a framework to create an equitable and intersectional learning environment for the future. For these efforts, she was awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
As a Chicago native, Thurston earned a B.A. in Psychology and Sociology from the University of Missouri and a Master of Science in Education and Education Policy from Johns Hopkins University. Her journey navigating inequitable systems fuels her passion for closing achievement, attainment, and opportunity gaps. She seeks to continue to yield successful policy change on the local, state, and federal level while keeping the voices of historically excluded communities at the center. She is a current member of Leadership for Educational Excellence (LEE).