Space backpack? Check. More glue sticks than one person could possibly use in one year? Check. Fierce optimism and belief that the world is truly his oyster? Check. My son is ready for kindergarten.

It’s that time of year when as parents we put our little (or not so little) people on the bus or drop them off at the front door of a new school and we hope, trust, and pray that the academic year is good to them. That they learn as much about themselves as they do about various subjects, that they are challenged, that they make new friends but keep the old, that they see the world a little differently, that they take one step closer in finding their dreams.

But in these “interesting times,” this is a huge transition and returning to the classroom with the delta variant on the rise is anxiety producing. Globally, research shows that the prevalence of child and youth mental health challenges have been increasing, and that these challenges are worsening as the pandemic continues. As students, teachers, administrators, and staff head back to school, it is a reminder of how much more needs to be done to support students and use our education system to educate, support, and inspire students about mental health and wellbeing.

In May 2021, the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy, published Moonshots for Youth Mental Health and Well-Being, a paper that articulates big, bold goals for improving youth mental health. The youth mental health crisis is so pervasive that solutions need to come from multiple sectors, with schools—K-12 and post-secondary—being at the center.

As a parent, the moonshots at the front of my mind relate to the early childhood years. My son tells me about his lessons on acid rain, and that hippos actually run faster than humans. I would also love for him to tell me about how he is feeling, or to say something when he notices that his friends aren’t their usual selves. It would open up an opportunity for a conversation or an intervention that could make all the difference to a  child’s long-term health.

This kind of intervention could be possible if schools had mental health teams to support emotional well-being, especially in the young years. There would be well-trained teachers and faculty who could empower even the youngest of children to articulate their feelings or notice when someone isn’t their usual self. Then with the right interventions, students at risk could be referred for appropriate care.

Parents could play a role too. Many of the signs children show when they are in distress are mistaken for bad behavior, rather than a cry for help. On a personal note, my son was assessed for an anxiety disorder during COVID while still in preschool. It wasn’t until his aunt, who was familiar with the condition, tuned into some flags that I had been missing. While my son was never in danger, it underscored how valuable schools could be for an “early warning system” if teachers and staff had training to look for signs and symptoms and ways of connecting children and families to with support much earlier.

Schools have had to reimagine themselves so many times in the last two (soon to be three) academic years. Our local school district had five different “first days” of school). Why not also reimagine how we can use schools to support our children’s mental health and well-being? As we’ve seen in higher education, investing in student mental health has a significant return on investment. Increased retention rates, student satisfaction rates, academic performance, graduation rates, and more tuition dollars, all point to the widespread benefits improving student mental health brings.

Prioritizing mental health is key to maximizing learning at all levels. Philanthropy can  provide the leadership, and the  capital to create solutions and build bridges with education systems.

In the meantime, I will pack the space backpack, squeeze my son tight, and do my absolute best to support him through this awesome yet sometimes overwhelming journey.

The Milken Institute report, Moonshots for Youth Mental Health and Well-Being is a call to action for all sectors to reimagine a mentally healthy world for young people. Contact us to learn more.