Declining mental health of students as a result of distance learning is often cited as a primary reason to reopen schools.

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Declining mental health of students as a result of distance learning is often cited as a primary reason to reopen schools.

      At the county and state level, mental health has been central in discussions around school re-opening. Proponents of reopening schools have claimed that in-person learning offers students an opportunity to improve their mental wellbeing. For example, Senators Petersen (D-Fairfax), Morrissey (D-Richmond), and Dunnavant (R-Henrico) proposed a bill in the Virginia state Senate to mandate that school districts offer an in-person learning option, in part because of an increase in mental health issues. Similarly, advocates for reopening schools have frequently invoked mental health concerns, with seven school reopening coalitions in Virginia citing the “mental health harms” associated with virtual learning to defend their position.

      Of course, these reopening advocates are not entirely wrong. Fully virtual learning has had an adverse impact on mental health, with the APA noting that virtual school environments have been associated with a decreased amount of motivation, socialization delays, and mental health care. However, it would be wrong to assume that reopening schools would automatically improve students’ mental wellness. While the pandemic has certainly exacerbated mental health problems, it’s important to remember that the mental health crisis existed before COVID-19. Even if we were to return to “normal,” the residual effects of the pandemic, like lost family members and friends, economic struggles, and challenges adjusting to a new environment would still cause significant detriment to mental health. There is ultimately no silver bullet that can end an immensely complex and far-reaching crisis, rooted in institutional failures and cultural misconceptions. 

      These reopening coalitions are not making a good-faith attempt to improve student wellness. Instead, they are using mental health as a talking point to advance a politically-charged goal. This is reflected in their silence on other pressing mental health issues that are directly tied to the education system and the COVID-19 pandemic. Reopening advocates have consistently turned a blind eye to the the depression, stress, and anxiety that plagued our schools before the pandemic, and ignored the inevitable mental health toll that physical learning will have on both teachers and students, after months of virtual learning.

The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis, and these issues will not disappear with a return to school. (Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

      Using bad-faith mental health arguments to justify a policy position is not new. Take, for example, the reaction to the mass-shooting in El Paso, Texas and Daytona, Ohio in August 2019. In the aftermath of these two mass-shootings, leaders from both political parties attributed this horrific violence to mental health. Former President Trump said, “mental illness and hatred pulled the trigger”. On the other side of the political spectrum, Senator Bernie Sanders, an outspoken progressive, noted that the world was wondering what “the mental health situation in America” was. Despite this bipartisan rhetoric, the evidence suggests that mass-shootings are not linked to mental health. The notion that mental illness causes gun violence “oversimplifies links between violence and mental illness,” with research consistently showing that those with mental health conditions are no more likely to commit violence than those without.  Framing the conversation on how to prevent mass-shootings through a mental health lens was not a genuine attempt to reduce gun violence. Instead, it was an effort to justify inaction on several bipartisan gun reforms, such as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 and the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019.

      Promoting oversimplified mental health narratives is not just disingenuous: it is downright dangerous. These arguments amplify harmful falsehoods that stigmatize communities. For example, associating mental illnesses with an elevated risk to commit mass-shootings can lead to stereotypes that view those with serious mental illnesses as dangerous, unpredictable, and incompetent individuals. These stereotypes manifest themselves into public, self, and institutional discrimination, discouraging a person from seeking the care they need. 

      Even when these arguments are not stigmatizing mental health, they still distort mental health discussions. They relegate an immensely broad and complex conversation to one politicized policy goal. As a result, they ignore, and ultimately fail to address, other crucial mental health concerns. Mental health discussions around schools, for example, have been reduced to debates over school reopenings, to the point where constructive dialogues around the stressors that are embedded in our school system, pandemic or not, are nonexistent. Similarly, conversations around the perceived link between mental health and mass-shootings neglect the real connection between mental health and gun violence: suicides, which make up two-thirds of all firearms deaths. 

      None of this is to say that mental health should not be considered in other political discussions. It clearly should be, especially when there are evidence-based connections, like in the school-reopening debate. However, these discussions must be nuanced. Mental health concerns should not exclusively exist as a convenient defense for political stances, nor should they only be highlighted in the context of another issue. Moreover, the connections between mental health and other institutional problems, like racism, discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community, poverty, and support and justice for sexual assault and domestic abuse victims, cannot be ignored. Instead, dialogues around mental health need to recognize the complexity of the crisis by acknowledging that no one solution will improve mental wellness.