Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at City Hall following a day of discussions on youth mental health.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at City Hall following a day of discussions on youth mental health.

Chardon Black, an 11th grader at the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, believes the COVID-19 pandemic took a big toll on student mental health.

“COVID had a big impact on us, largely because of how we were expected to come out of it,” he said.

Black believes the way schools reopened and expected kids to resume their education as though the pandemic never happened has been even more detrimental than the pandemic itself.

“People tried to go back to the status quo prior to the pandemic without recognizing how it changed us and without actively trying to change with the times and change how we go about educating our students, about workload in schools, about recognizing mental health,” Black said.

A visit to discuss youth mental health

Black and his classmates got to share these thoughts with Mayor Justin Bibb and the nation’s top doctor, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy. Dr. Murthy stopped in Cleveland on Wednesday to hear what students and community leaders think are the best ways to address the growing youth mental health crisis. These meetings were closed to the media.

Chardon Black, 11th grader at Cleveland School of Science and Medicine.
Chardon Black, 11th grader at Cleveland School of Science and Medicine. Credit: Cleveland Metropolitan School District

In December 2021, Murthy identified youth mental health as one of the U.S. government’s top public health priorities. He released a 53-page advisory on protecting youth mental health. It gives general recommendations that individuals, families, community organizations, health professionals, educators, technology companies, governments, and others can use to improve the mental health of children, adolescents, and young adults. 

Murthy’s advisory highlights the effect the pandemic has had on youth mental health, saying “the pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”

Twenty-five students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Civics 2.0 program, an extracurricular activity for students interested in civic engagement and public policy, were invited to speak with Murthy and Bibb. Students responded to a slate of questions about the stigma surrounding mental health care, the ways students feel supported –or not supported–by school staff, and key factors that impact student well-being, such as social media and difficult home environments.

Teachers provide the bulk of mental health support – Students want more

Black told Signal Cleveland he and the other students raised concerns that, in Cleveland schools, a majority of mental health support comes directly from teachers rather than from  mental health professionals.

“I don’t believe there’s any official mental health thing in place besides maybe the family support specialist, but she’s not always there. And she’s not very popular within the school, like a lot of people don’t even know we have a family support specialist,” he said.

Black said that his school has a very supportive community and very supportive teachers. They have the strongest bonds with the students and are the first adults students would go to if they are experiencing mental distress. But he also said there should be a better structure in place to take the burden off teachers.

“I absolutely do agree that we need more mental health specialists and individuals in place who can help students who might be having a mental health issue,” he said.

The surgeon general feels the same. His report says educators are often the first to notice if a student is struggling or behaving differently than usual. It also recommends that school districts “expand the school-based mental health workforce,” claiming that “a lack of school counselors makes it harder to support children experiencing mental health challenges.” 

Murthy suggests school districts provide one counselor for every 250 students.

At a press briefing that followed the student discussion, Mayor Bibb said Cleveland is investing in improving student access to mental health services. He cited the city’s approval of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars for a series of school-based clinics with telehealth rooms that would connect kids with professionals. He also said he is working with CMSD to make sure the district has a more diverse pool of mental health professionals.

Black said students also told Murthy and Bibb they want to see schools and other local leaders highlight the importance of mental health. They suggested that schools provide more opportunities for discussing mental health and how to cope with distress. 

Students highlight the link between mental health and gun violence

Students also brought up gun violence. They said there needs to be greater awareness about the danger guns can pose, particularly in the hands of young people in mental crisis. 

These same students hosted city-wide discussions on gun violence. They even went to Columbus to lobby lawmakers to keep federal gun restrictions in place in Ohio.

Students from 23 CMSD schools met at the district's headquarters to hear from a panel of peers and experts on the anti-gun violence movement in December 2022.
Students from 23 CMSD schools met at the district’s headquarters to hear from a panel of peers and experts on the anti-gun violence movement in December 2022. Credit: Paul Rochford / Signal Cleveland

In the press briefing, Murthy agreed that the issue of gun violence can’t be left out of the youth mental health equation.

“It’s critical that we recognize that gun violence is now the No. 1 cause of death among children,” he said. 

He celebrated the bipartisan Safer Communities Act that Congress passed in 2022. It funds violence prevention programs, school mental health programs and helps states establish red flag laws, which restrict people deemed a safety risk from owning weapons. But he said even this is not enough. 

There are 20 states with red flag laws. Ohio is not one of them.

“This is all important. This is good, but it can’t be the last step that we take. And kids are telling me this very clearly,” he said.

‘Young people in this city have a tremendous amount of insight’

The discussion with the nation’s top doctor gave Black some hope for the future. He feels that youth are finally involved in these important conversations that drive public policy.

“I feel like we’re setting the precedent for a future where we’ll be able to truly see the results of our actions and the results of our labors and the results of our unfortunate suffering. [The surgeon general] said himself he believes the youth are the solution,” Black said.

Murthy said he is impressed with the students he met during his visit.

“The residents of Cleveland should be proud that the young people in this city have a tremendous amount of insight into what they’re experiencing and what’s driving an adult crisis. They understand trauma. They understand how important it is to address it,” he said.

“But they can’t do this on their own,” he said. “They need help from the rest of us to ensure that their communities are safe from gun violence.” 

K-12 Education Reporter (he/him)
Paul, a former City Year Cleveland AmeriCorps member based in a charter school, covered K-12 education for Signal Cleveland until August, 2023. Paul joined us from Cleveland Documenters, where he focused on creating infographics and civic tech to make public information more accessible. Paul is also a musician, photographer and graphic designer.