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Askwith Education Forum Highlights the Challenges of Adolescent Mental Health

A panel of four experts explored how educators and parents can help adolescents manage their mental health

Improving adolescent mental health was at the forefront of the latest Askwith Education Forum at Harvard Graduate School of Education on Tuesday, March 21.

The panel discussion, hosted by Senior Lecturer Josephine Kim, featured four field experts: Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd; Alisha Moreland-Capuia, founder of the Institute for Trauma-Informed Systems Change at McLean Hospital; author and clinical psychologist Lisa Damour; and Linda Charmaraman, director of Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. The panelists explored a number of topics fundamental to adolescent mental health and tackled the “crisis” often wrongly portrayed in the media and outside of the academic community. Panelists focused on how parents and educators can help adolescents navigate a period full of challenges and sharpened perspectives on the differences between normative experiences and trauma-informed care.

Panelists at "The Crisis of Adolescent Mental Health." L-r: Josphine Kim, Linda Charmaraman, Lisa Damour, Alisha Moreland-Capuia, and Richard Weissbourd
Panelists at "The Crisis of Adolescent Mental Health." L-r: Josphine Kim, Linda Charmaraman, Lisa Damour, Alisha Moreland-Capuia, and Richard Weissbourd
Photo: Jill Anderson

“The more that we can texture the conversation with and about teenagers with the recognition that they will have a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of nerves, and a lot of sadness, and we can meaningfully distinguish that from kids who are suffering from mental health concerns or have experienced trauma and warrant the full force of everything we can offer in terms of clinical intervention,” said Damour, “The better it is for kids regardless of where they happen to sit in that space.”

Understanding the difference between emotion and trauma, the educators agreed, is often key. “A lot of what teens are expecting is normative, and they’re developing coping strategies,” Weissbourd pointed out. “And that’s not a bad thing for some of them.”

True trauma, however, requires a carefully planned strategy as educators.

“It is a privilege to be in the top part of one’s brain and an adolescent is really trying to get there. Survival is a low bar,” said Moreland-Capuia. “We know that safe environments and safe systems help healthy brains. And then we are better able to make meaning and engage in the world that we live in.”

Navigating the impact technology and social networks have on adolescents was also front and center. While the question of cell phone bans in schools and limiting technology use at night to help better sleep was debated, the researchers made it clear online life is essential to promoting good mental health.

Lisa Damour
Lisa Damour speaks at "The Crisis of Adolescent Mental Health"
Photo: Jill Anderson

“This is the reality of 2023, that it’s an ever-pervasive digital landscape,” said Charmaraman. “Adolescents are growing up in an ecosystem that’s a blurred boundary between real life and digital life. This is very real to them and very important, this digital space that they live in.”

The value of those virtual spaces, the panelists agreed, depends on a variety of factors that parents and caretakers can be careful to monitor as positive social influences.

“We know teenagers are more vulnerable to norms in their environments,” said Damour, noting social media algorithms can quickly put harmful narratives into an adolescent’s purview. “That becomes a norm, especially when you’re not out and about and seeing people, and that shifts behavior. Adults want to be mindful of what are the norms of the digital environments where your kids are hanging out. If it’s a goofy dance video norm, fine, if it’s a toxic norm, that’s much more concerning.”

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