Schools React to Physical Health, Slow Response to Mental Health

Recently, our neighbor California passed a bill requiring schools to start no earlier than 8:30 AM. As much as I love waking up before the sun and having a barely functioning brain until third period, I would appreciate the extra 45 minutes to sleep. This fix, however, will most likely not function as the blanket treatment many were hoping for since these issues go far beyond sleep deprivation and transportation. 

Schools in general, especially Washoe County schools, are infamous for using one-size-fits-all treatments. A perfect example of this is seen in the remedied attendance policy for the 2019-2020 school year, which prevents students from ditching class by doing their work, but also can not miss more than 9 days per semester. Extremely generalized solutions like this do not make room for exceptions, but that is not the issue with later start times. These new later start times will draw attention away from other, larger issues. By no means am I suggesting that we should not encourage later start times or policies that allow for healthier sleep patterns for students, but rather that we need to be careful about using it as an all-fixer and to continue to push for policies that encourage non-academic success. 

A simple Google search shows that numerous studies find that students who sleep more perform better academically and tend to have better mental health. This does not mean that later start times will solve these issues. We live in a time of high expectations for academic performance without providing the social environment required for this success. Another pandemic exists alongside sleep deprivation, hiding in posts on social media, or in late-night text sessions: loneliness. Several more studies show that a large portion of university students (anywhere from 15.8 to 64 percent, according to The Independent) experience chronic loneliness. I often bring up in conversation that experts say loneliness poses a health risk greater than that of obesity and similar to smoking, as found in this study. Even sleep deprivation can be attributed to loneliness. One of many symptoms of depression is the deregulation of sleep patterns. In order to properly treat the disease of high stress and low functionality, schools need to also facilitate an engaging social environment for students.

This study, published by Biomed Central, shows a correlation between loneliness and risky behaviors (such as drug abuse and unprotected sex) among US and Russian teenagers aged 13 to 15, adjusting for depressive symptoms, and suggests that loneliness may be more central to these issues than previously thought. Another study found a preference in trained rats for social environments over cocaine. Both of these suggest that these problems may be superficial and are instead caused by underlying loneliness.

Yet another study of anxiety in children from the 1950s to 1993 found that children in 1993 showed a continuous increase in stress levels, and at the end of the study found that average children in 1993 shared similar levels of stress with psychiatric patients from the 1950s. Much of this is attributed to a changing social environment far beyond the school district’s reach. However, I know from personal experience that students have staggering amounts of homework, and on top of things like jobs and family needs, this homework certainly does not do anything to help the continuously rising levels of stress experienced by students. 

Many schools, such as our own, have tried to remedy these with social-emotional learning (SEL) classes. While SEL skills are generally useful, again, these programs are not a miracle solution. In addition to commencing laws that make provisions for healthy sleep patterns, schools need to provide the rich social environment needed for effective learning and growing. This does not need to be taught to students in an academic class. Rather, things such as longer break times and lunches and more niche-interest extracurriculars could potentially provide a large boost to students’ social lives.

The new laws in California give me hope for change in other illness-causing areas, specifically the social development of students. I suggest that collectively, us Washoe County residents petition for even larger change. In an ever-changing and improving world, it can be difficult to look back on the cost of intellectual advancement. Californians have pioneered in addressing this, but we as students, parents, and alumni need to continue to push for a better world for future students. I hope to spearhead this through continued investigation with fellow students, but I cannot do this alone. After all, where better to test innovative policies than in the third-highest ranked county in a state ranked 45 out of 50 in the country?