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Connecting the dots: Mental health and SEL in afterschool

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Connecting the dots: Mental health and SEL in afterschool

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re highlighting the ways afterschool programs support children and young people as they face challenges including trauma, ACEs, substance use, and beyond. Read the full series here.

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, we here at the Afterschool Alliance thought it was important to take a step back and look at all of the ways that afterschool programs, systems, and staff around the country are supporting the holistic development of our youth. Over the course of the month we’ve gone into the weeds on how afterschool and summer programs can provide critical supports to youth as they face the opioid crisis and the teen vaping crisis. We’ve talked about how vital it is to foster partnerships and involve entire communities in the effort to address substance abuse and mental health challenges that the youth that we serve must confront all too often. We’ve touched upon how physical activity can help with mental health, how some communities are working to address the adverse childhood experiences of youth, and the kinds of supports and self-care practices that youth development professionals need in order to help youth through difficult times.

With all that already on the table, we wanted to take a moment to look at how all of these issues – mental health, substance misuse, adverse childhood experiences, and trauma-informed care – are connected. While many of these issues are being brought up in the same types of conversations around the country, it’s important to recognize the interrelatedness of these different topics and identify the connective tissue that may allow the youth development field to address these issues in a coherent and informed way. For the purposes of the youth development field, I would posit that that connective tissue is often SEL.

The US Department of Health and Human Services defines mental health as including “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.” For those of you who are familiar with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s Core SEL Competencies, the overlap between this definition and SEL is clear; they both explicitly call out the importance of social awareness and relationships, the ability to make responsible decisions, and the capacity to identify and manage emotions. This is not to say that there is a perfect overlap: while this broad definition of mental health is clearly conceptually aligned with SEL, it would be foolhardy to say that SEL is always the solution to specific mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, or other psychiatric conditions, which also fall under the mental health domain.

While the relationships between many of the things we’ve discussed this month may sometimes seem tenuous – for example, not every child with mental health issues has also had adverse childhood experiences, nor will they necessarily have substance abuse problems – any approach to the true holistic support of youth must incorporate all of these potential issues, and SEL and mental health provide an invaluable lens through which we can connect these dots. Furthermore, we know that afterschool and summer programs are particularly well-situated to deal with all of these issues, with the right preparation and support.

We know that afterschool programs provide opportunities for the kinds of social and emotional development that allow all children to thrive as they move through school and into adulthood. We know that many programs take a comprehensive approach to physical and mental well-being, promoting physical health, mental health, and social and emotional development in tandem. We know that these opportunities for development are critical to youth readiness to enter the workforce and to engage in civic life. To put it simply, we know that high quality afterschool and summer learning programs are a critical piece of the puzzle for providing youth around the country with the holistic school and community supports that they need and deserve.

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