How Florida is teaching kids resilience to battle the youth mental-health crisis

Young people are in a mental-health crisis as depression and suicides spike, and unfortunately our…

How Florida is teaching kids resilience to battle the youth mental-health crisis

Young people are in a mental-health crisis as depression and suicides spike, and unfortunately our health-care system is woefully inadequate to help.

We see regular headlines of students committing suicide after suffering bullying, and murderous school shooters are plagued by mental illnesses, causing preventable injuries and deaths.

But not everyone is sitting idly by, letting this trend continue. Led by First Lady Casey DeSantis, Florida is taking steps to replace a broken mental-health-care system with one based on resilient prevention instead of reactive passivity.

Progressives howl about Gov. Ron DeSantis’ various moves, but this should not be a partisan issue.

I hope Democrats who care about saving lives get on board. 

Rachel’s Challenge, a nonprofit the father of the first Columbine victim founded, teaches millions of schoolchildren, reportedly preventing numerous suicides and school shootings through anti-bullying and empathy training.

But as a standalone nonprofit, this and similar efforts need broader, systemic support, and Florida is stepping up.

Florida aims to no longer teach to mental disorders — it’s equipping kids with the skills to learn how to overcome challenges and prevent these disorders.

Casey DeSantis, who launched her Resiliency Florida Initiative in February 2021, last month nudged the Board of Education to revise the state’s academic standards and update its mental-health education and character education in grades 6 through 12 to reflect a resiliency approach.

These resiliency standards include a focus on volunteerism, problem-solving, critical thinking, compassion and grit.

Grit is that character trait so often lacking in today’s culture, which breeds victimhood, divisiveness and hyperfocus on microaggressions.

Florida’s mandated civics education and volunteerism help counter the self-absorption and isolation barraging our kids in social media.

How Florida is teaching kids resilience to battle the youth mental-health crisis
Ron DeSantis and Florid is trying to take steps to replace a broken mental-health-care system.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Today’s parenting too often veers into two extreme ditches.

Either overprotective helicopter overlords never let children experience failures and disappointments — or neglectful, absentee guardians let electronic devices or the streets raise these precious young ones.

Both extremes produce children with difficulty operating in life, lacking the mental stamina to respond to stress in healthy, positive ways.

In my case, my overbearing parents sheltered me and my seven siblings with extreme tactics, to the point that child-protective authorities almost took us away under suspicion of child abuse.

This hyper-controlling upbringing yielded depression, anxiety, PTSD and fibromyalgia in me as an adult.

It took many painful years to relearn basic notions of stress management and mitigating fight-or-flight responses to everyday situations.

It’s no wonder slavery abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than fix broken men.”  

Florida’s efforts are important and a shining example, but ultimately children’s mental-health success rests with parents.

First Lady Casey DeSantis looks on during a roundtable discussion at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in downtown Tampa on Thursday, February 23, 2023.
Casey DeSantis launched her Resiliency Florida Initiative in February 2021.
Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times

Casey DeSantis spearheaded this education initiative with input from conversations with students and parents across the state, as well as school-district mental-health coordinators, teachers and faculty.

The initiative is meant to “reframe and rethink the way we’re approaching mental health,” she said last month. “It’s not about being a victim relegated to a set of circumstances you cannot overcome.”

Sports is an excellent vehicle for teaching grit and resilience to students. The first lady partnered with professional sports teams and athletes to lend their voices and personal stories, including the Orlando Magic, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Heat, Miami Dolphins, NASCAR and LPGA. Athletes endorsing this effort include Tom Brady, David Beckham, Peyton Manning and Lou Holtz.

The Resiliency Florida Initiative offers a free curriculum to educators and tools created specifically for parents interested in learning what resources are available to help their children.

Dr. Chloe Carmichael, clinical psychologist and author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety,” told me she supports Casey DeSantis’ efforts.

“As a psychologist, I like that the initiative normalizes the fact that life has challenges and takes a solution-focused approach,” Carmichael said.

“The emphasis on personal efficacy and an internal locus of control may help students to guard against a sense of helplessness, which is one of the hallmark features of depression. The proactive approach may also help equip students to better engage with the healthy function of anxiety, which is to stimulate preparation behaviors.”

These preparation behaviors train young people to have already-ingrained healthy cognitive patterns to use when they’re triggered by external stimuli. Despite our recent headwinds, resilient mental health is achievable and necessary for an American turnaround.

Carrie Sheffield is a senior fellow at Independent Women’s Voice and Tony Blankley Fellow for American Exceptionalism at The Steamboat Institute.