Addressing the Learning Crisis Connected to the Current Mental Health Crisis

Thoughts
By: 
Betsy Hill & Roger Stark

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series

In part one of our series, we explored the relationship between mental health issues, cognitive skills in general, as well as the connection to the stress and anxiety that students and teachers are experiencing  in the K-12 world.

To review from our last installment, according to an article by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic, “The United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental-health crisis. From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.”

And among teachers, the incidence of stress and burnout is staggering. A recent survey conducted by the RAND Corporation finds a notable increase (almost 50 percent) in the share of teachers who say they might leave the profession at the end of the current school year, compared to pre-pandemic survey results. In addition to concerns about mass departures, stress hinders the effectiveness of those who remain in the profession.”

We know that stress impairs learning, but what is still often underappreciated is the degree to which mental health and cognition are connected. As the research continues to surface, the connection between cognition and wellbeing is undeniable. And what’s more, this is a two-way street. Stress impairs learning, and difficulty with learning is known to cause stress and anxiety. 

It turns out that every mental health ailment you can think of exacts a cognitive price – that is, people with depression and schizophrenia and PTSD and addictions and sleep disorders are typically saddled with reduced cognitive functioning.  Even some medical treatments, like chemotherapy, are known to negatively impact cognitive functioning. 

The other thing to understand is that cognitive effects can persist even when the mental health issue is addressed or treated, so it’s not simply a matter of waiting to get over the stress and then returning to learning as normal.

When students are depressed, every assignment they’re asked to do can seem overwhelming, and with reduced mental cognition, it is even worse. 

Yet, the understanding of the connection between wellbeing and cognitive skills is encouraging.

Why? 

Because it gives us a place where we can begin to repair some of the damage from our mental health crisis. 

If students are anxious because learning is hard, cognitive training can reduce the stress by increasing learning aptitude. If students have trouble learning because their cognitive functioning is reduced because of a mental health issue, cognitive training can improve learning and reduce the negative cognitive impact of those conditions on learning.

 

Getting Better by a Factor of C

You may remember from part one of this series a study published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review that stated that all types of mental disorders come with a hidden cost in the form of cognitive dysfunction, including deficits in memory, attention, executive functions and processing speed. The authors found that both diagnosable mental disorders, as well as some common symptoms such as anxiety and worry, came with a “cognitive price.” The authors called this “The C Factor,” shorthand  for cognitive dysfunction. The C-Factor results in lower performance on cognitive tests or a reduction in cognitive abilities.

The reality of the C-Factor is the big impact that even small reductions in cognitive functioning can have on academic life and outcomes. In essence, it is the variable in the equation that predicts how well we will do on anything that involves thinking and learning. So, when a mental disorder has a secondary effect of knocking us off our learning game because of diminished cognitive functioning, we need to recognize and address the cause of impaired learning.

Fortunately, cognitive skills training can address the C-Factor directly, to mitigate its impact on academic performance and all the other parts of life that require effective cognitive functioning.

Traditionally, we have been aware of the need to address whatever mental health issue was present, but we have frequently not been aware of the secondary situation, the C-Factor. And even when the condition is relatively minor, such as generalized anxiety and worry, strengthening cognitive functioning can bring with it a whole set of wellbeing benefits.

Chalk one up for science.

There is a rather famous quote attributed to writer Arthur C. Clarke, although he is most certainly not its originator. "A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Cognitive training in its most modern iteration is that sort of magic. It appears to be a set of simple video games, yet it grows cognitive abilities, in a very real sense making the player smarter. As stress, anxiety and other emotional maladies extract their cost in cognitive dysfunction, this “magic” cognitive training has the ability to not only replenish cognitive capacity, but to also further strengthen the players’ cognitive abilities, offering them a lifetime of benefits.

Mental health has been the stepchild of physical health for far too long. It would be hard to imagine that a student could be sitting in a classroom with a broken leg or pneumonia and be ignored. Yet many students can sit in the classroom with depression or any one of a number of mental afflictions and be ignored, or worse, told to “pull it together.” The evidence of the C-Factor – a direct challenge to the learning that we are responsible for as educators – makes it especially important to recognize and to address effectively.

The more we become aware of the workings of the brain, the more effectively we can utilize the tools and strategies that science is telling are needed to optimize the results our students achieve and the health and fitness they take with them on graduation day into the lives we have been helping them prepare for. 

The scope of the current mental health crisis suggests that a much larger proportion of our student populations will struggle with aspects of learning, courtesy of the C-Factor. And those who have always suffered, such as students with ADHD, learning disabilities and other factors, are likely to be struggling even more than usual. Recovering from the crisis requires more effective ways to address our students’ mental health, their physical health and safety, and the cognitive consequences of the crisis that stands in the way of the academic results we strive so hard to help them achieve.  As it stands now, with our teens experiencing intense sadness and half our teachers considering leaving the profession, at least we have a starting place. We can broach the C-Factor by providing quality cognitive skills training and find immediate benefits for our school populations.

 

Coming in the final installment: In our third and final installment, we’ll look at the state of mental wellness in our schools, and what personnel and programs can (and should) be added.

 

About the authors

Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country.  She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.

 

Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari

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