Belonging and its critical impact on student mental health

Belonging and its critical impact on student mental health

As the pandemic continues and the majority of schools remain closed, it’s no secret that students’ mental health is suffering

Young people the world over are isolated, anxious, and disengaged. Suicide ideation and attempts are at an all-time high. And while more than 50 percent of students say they need mental health services, more than 55 percent don’t know where to go to get it. According to this Washington Post article, students who are most vulnerable are often those most affected. They have less access to mental health services and fewer devices for connecting to school.

A potent antidote exists, though it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of ways to improve student mental health. 

The solution lies in belonging—within ourselves, with each other, and in the wider world. Belonging is the acceptance, celebration, and inclusion of ours and others’ fullest selves without shifting or changing who we are to meet the expectations of those around us. The world has shown us time and time again that only some of us are able to be our “full selves” in the world without experiencing constant threats to our wellbeing, safety, or lives. Belonging is not, by any means, simple, especially because it cannot be separated from the history of exclusion, oppression, and violence in our world. 

The main roadblocks to belonging come from another surprising place—our understanding of success. The barrier to belonging has three faces: our societal beliefs about success, the origins of those beliefs, and the factors we don’t consider when we think about who is (or isn’t) “successful.” 

Students’ definition of success isn’t their own. 

Grades, test scores, college admissions, popularity, all the way into adulthood where success is defined by our careers and how much money we make or influence we have. Students who don’t meet metrics of success defined by society ingrain messages about self-worth and their ability to achieve in the future. Students marked as “high achieving” are often crippled by the fear of what could happen if or when they don’t meet the same standard in the future, asking themselves “What would failure say about who I am?” 

Success is integrated with our identities. When students subscribe to definitions of success without guidance to further deconstruct the definitions with a critical pedagogy, they incorporate their experiences chasing success into their identities and use limited and partial information to answer the critical question, “Who am I?” 

If we, as educators, define success for students by projecting the idea that life is a linear path which we should all follow, we send the message that our student’s self-worth and value is defined by how good they are at walking a preordained path that’s prescribed to them.

Which begs the question, “Prescribed by whom?” We can start by examining expectations set by parents and educators, but that answer isn’t whole enough. We know that parents and educators often feel a tremendous responsibility to encourage young people down paths proven to produce stability and prestige because they ultimately want the best for them.  But, chasing extrinsic motivators of success, like wealth, power, and fame, are known to be one of the leading causes of mental health issues in adults. If we look closely and more deeply, we find that our country’s history and White, patriacharical, systems underpin access and mobility, and set the terms for so-called success, which infiltrate into every structure in our society. 

In order to improve mental health and create a deeper sense of belonging for our students we need to do a few things: 

Redefine success as non-linear 

To prioritize belonging means investing in the idea that instead of one linear pathway to achieve success, success is defined and redefined by students themselves, and rooted in their value systems. It means instead of creating pathways toward a prescribed outcome, we create pathways for students to explore path-making themselves—paths based on their values, strengths, skill sets; the things that bring them joy; and how they can positively contribute to the broader world. It means championing the truth that there is no “right” and “wrong” pathway to choose. Instead, let’s assign value to students’ self-knowledge and a growing sense of certainty in who they are and that they can contribute positively and uniquely to the world around them. 

Understand that meaning in life stems from belonging and purpose

The idea of  “getting ahead” or “making it to the top” is rooted in comparison and gives us a scarcity mindset—that our success depends on others falling short. Achieving success on these terms necessities leaving others behind. This attitude is widely a product of White dominant culture and western individualism. To prioritize belonging means to change our narrative as a society from success measured in comparative terms to success measured in terms defined by meaning and contribution. Researchers Emily Estafani Smith and Bill Damon inform us that while many search for fulfillment through external factors, true meaning in life stems from belonging—our relationship with the world—and purpose—our meaningful contribution to the world. 

Make room for a deeper evaluation of our values. 

We need to ask ourselves whether or not our personal values truly align with the overarching values of individualism and capitalism. We can undertake this inquiry with our young people, in our classrooms by inviting conversations about core values—what they are, where they come from, and in what ways they are in or out of sync with the world around us. Structured investigations like these help students develop a positive self-construct and a framework for decision making to use as they navigate their pathways forward. 

In addition to examining our received notions of success, we have another reality to consider: Success doesn’t exist— or arise—in a vacuum. There are some major factors that boost or hinder a person’s chances at achieving what is recognized as success. They have to do with belonging.

Structural racism and discrimination impact access to opportunity. 

Without a continued conversation about how oppression impacts access (to all of our critical needs—education, healthcare, housing, food security, career development, and more) across race and identity, we’re doing a disservice to students. To our racially and economically privileged students, we’re saying, “All of your accomplishments have come only from your hard work. You did this yourself. Great job.” To our marginalized students, we’re saying, “If you don’t succeed, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough.” Neither reality is remotely true without the greater context of our country’s history of marginalization and oppression. When we fail to talk about the broader reality of access and opportunity, students are left believing that hard work, and hard work alone, is the only contributor to success—making them vulnerable to inflated or diminished senses of self. 

Gatekeeping is a structural attack on belonging. 

There are many ways people with power make decisions that impact the trajectory of others’ lives with incomplete and biased information. This phenomenon is called gatekeeping. With its dependence on test scores, grades, and where a student attended high school as indicators of aptitude of future success, the college admissions process is one of the largest culprits. When we have gatekeeping policies in place, it not only sends a message that “to belong” means to perform based on extrinsic definitions of success, it also perpetuates access to opportunity only for people born racially and economically privileged. When we view belonging as a personal, interpersonal, and structural priority, it means we intentionally restructure our systems to include policies that perpetuate equitable opportunity for us all, prioritizing equity for those with historically marginalized identities.

Experiencing trauma impacts our ability to learn. 

Thanks to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and to the work of many researchers before him, we know that trauma significantly impacts a student’s executive functioning abilities. Often in a classroom setting, success is defined as a student’s ability to pay attention, follow instructions, and not cause distraction. The reality is that many students who have experienced trauma are often punished for using coping strategies that support their ability to focus and learn. Broader, trauma comes in many forms—complex and societal trauma is often a product of sustained oppression, impacting students with marginalized identities. For example, to assume that racially targeted injustice in the world impacts everyone identically is to diminish the direct impact on students who share identities with victims of violence. To prioritize belonging in our classrooms means continuously deepening our understanding of how trauma impacts the human brain and how we can create trauma-informed classrooms. It also means prioritizing social and emotional learning curricula, like Project Wayfinder’s belonging curricula throughout our schools. 

Being unseen for our whole selves diminishes us.

If success is defined without consideration for our complex identities, students are silenced and forced into “boxes” that don’t fit their entire selves, magnifying the central threat to mental health the belief that “I don’t belong.” What’s more, because some identities are seen (race, physical ability) while others are unseen (gender, sexuality, learning differences), we don’t always know when students are being forced into boxes that don’t fit. The act of shifting, changing, and hiding who we are to meet the expectations of those around us is not only a threat to safety, it leaves us isolated, depressed, and sitting with the message that our truest selves are not fit to be seen or accepted by the world around us as well. 

Prioritizing belonging means starting from a place of inclusion—a message that your whole, beautiful, complex mix of identities, the whole of who you are, is appropriate and accepted. It means teaching students (and ourselves) that how we think about our identities is the root of our self-worth, none of which is up for negotiation. It means co-designing our classrooms with students and teaching skills that allow us to interact with each other in ways that celebrate understanding, inclusion, and positive relationships. It also means valuing and nourishing students’ unique strengths, even when they are not valued equally in our society’s limited definitions of success. 

Why Mental Health is Important for Students

The ways we define success are a derivative of a lack of belonging—a singular and limiting definition of how we need to live and perform to assume identities of worth and value in our world. Instead, we need to start first prioritizing belonging—within ourselves, with each other, and in the wider world—as a way to address the widespread mental health crisis crippling our young people today.  

At Project Wayfinder, we are on a mission to make school a place where students go to develop the social and emotional skills they need to create lives of meaning and purpose. We work with schools across the globe to first start by helping students strengthen their experience of belonging within themselves, with each other, and in the wider world. We envision a world where students’ success is not assessed based on the backdrop to which we are measured against, but rather where their success is measured by how they live out their values, design meaningful lives for themselves, and contribute positively to the world beyond themselves.
Join Casey and her colleague, Brandy Arnold, director of training and school support at Project Wayfinder, to discuss the connection between belonging and mental health at this upcoming webinar, or join the Wayfinder team on April 6th, for a free virtual half-day SEL 2.0 summit. Join our team for engaging, thought-provoking conversations, panel discussions, and presentations with takeaways you can put into action.