Youths are facing a mental health crisis. Schools need to dedicate more time and resources to address it, but they also need to be careful about how they do it. America has a track record of stigmatizing mental health struggles, particularly the mental health struggles of students with historically marginalized identities. As a former student with a learning disability, I experienced firsthand how stigmas around behavioral differences can alienate and deplete the self-esteem of Neurodivergent and Disabled students—contributing to the higher instances of depression and anxiety they experience compared to neurotypical and able-bodied students. Growing up, my information processing and fine motor disabilities were diagnosed, but not understood, causing adults to put me through countless unproductive treatments and needlessly hold me back a grade. And I didn’t understand why my peers teased me, didn’t invite me over, and generally outcasted me. I felt “less than” in every way.
Something obviously needs to change when a child feels this way. But interventions for students like me frequently backfire. Mandatory reporting policies force administrators and educators to report suicidal risk factors to the school’s crisis response staff, many of whom are School Resource Officers (commissioned law enforcement officers placed in schools with sworn authority to make arrests). These staff members may push a student to undergo psychiatric counseling or often traumatizing “wilderness therapy,” which, in the worst of cases, forcefully restrains kids and takes them from their beds in the middle of the night.
From a child’s perspective, this process often feels coercive. I was in elementary school when I confided in an adult about suicidal ideation and actions. Wanting to share my darkest feelings and work through it together, I asked them not to tell anyone else. They did, understandably, and I soon found myself in more ineffective treatments and taking ineffective pills. Don’t get me wrong, therapy and other treatments are important. They can be effective and can be lifesavers, but they were unnecessary and unhelpful at that time in my life. Attempts to treat me intensified my feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps worst, I lost trust in everyone and took away an unhealthy lesson—hide your emotions. This set off a twenty-year struggle with depression.
No intervention or treatment ever cured me. That only happened later in college, when I finally grasped unwritten social norms and started succeeding in school and art despite my disabilities. At the same time, I chose to voluntarily visit school counselors without any coercion for the first time, and it helped. It was independence and maturity that finally led to my recovery, not anything adults made me do as a child.
But in today’s overly paternalistic culture, schools take away opportunities for self-growth. Popular student spyware tools scan students’ assignments and personal writing, including narratives, poems, and admissions essays, for signs of mental illness. As one Neurodivergent friend has told me, “Most of my teachers treated me with caution, but my English teacher gave me space to write about Neurodiverse characters and vent my feelings in creative projects. I wouldn’t have had that space if I was worried that he, or school surveillance tech, would report me.” Across all levels of education, institutions implement constant surveillance programs, like Internet keyword monitoring, AI equipped microphones, and facial recognition technology to supposedly “detect and treat” mental health conditions.
As a Neurodivergent child, this tech would have destroyed any remaining trust I had in my school administrators; isolating me even further and scaring me off from independently looking for the community I needed. And if the tech flagged me for a mental health intervention, it would have only forced me into more unproductive treatments under crushing surveillance. The exact opposite of the distance and freedom that led to my recovery.
Student monitoring destroys trusting relationships and isn’t even an effective treatment. For all the invasiveness of spyware, teens report that it encourages them to withdraw from their community and behave even more recklessly. When surveillance puts teens into forced interventions, it increases feelings of shame and can exacerbate mental health symptoms. Many academic studies have found that heightened levels of surveillance exacerbate student anxieties, especially among women and students of color, and can deter healthy personal sharing. This often stifles development. According to Anne Collier, a child enrichment expert, “When you’re an adolescent, you’re exploring who you are and your place in the world, and you need to have the chance to do that without being in a petri dish under a microscope.” I can understand those feelings, even now as an adult. After all, the biggest roadblock to my recovery was a lack of freedom. I didn’t feel allowed to grow independently, explore new ideas, or make my own decisions.
Most schools have mental health professionals on staff or under contract, but not enough of them to treat an entire student body, and purchasing surveillance tech only diverts funds away from effective solutions. When my now wife and I moved to Sacramento for college and law school as a dating couple, thousands of miles away from her family, my wife sought out counseling through her school. But the service she got only made the problem worse. The counselor was overworked and obviously didn’t understand her concerns. Instead of offering support or talking through the issues, the counselor recommended that my wife break up with me and move home or ask me to buy flights to Texas every two weeks, something I could not afford to do. On another occasion, a man in my wife’s class followed her home from school. She reached out to her school for help, but they did nothing because it “did not happen on campus,” not so much as offering a referral to a counselor or a helpline.
Increasing availability and accessibility is the best way to correct the deficiencies of school-based mental health services. Spyware could never have helped my wife. Identifying her for assistance wasn’t the issue. The lack of professional expertise, capacity, and will was. If counselors can’t serve the number of students already seeking help, they could never deal with the strain on capacity that invasive surveillance creates. That bears out in the data; instead of referring students to mental health services, spyware more often sends students to disciplinary officers, or even law enforcement, who are not adequately qualified to provide short or long-term care.
Unfortunately, we are moving in the wrong direction when it comes to student privacy, and constant online monitoring may soon become legally required, even when schools choose privacy-preserving mental health options. Under a slew of proposed state and national laws, with the Kids Online Safety Act being the most high-profile example, Internet companies are required to verify users’ age and obtain parental consent before giving anyone under 18 access to a vast majority of the Internet, including health and education websites. These mandates will only put students under more surveillance-induced stress, curtail personal expression, and block access to crucial mental health resources and peer support forums.
The bulk of these legally induced harms will fall on historically marginalized students. Anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians and policy groups have already said they plan to use student online safety as a cover to censor educational information about LGBTQIA+ identities, especially trans identities, wrongly citing “trans indoctrination” as a mental health risk. The Internet has long been the premier avenue for LGBTQIA+ youth to discuss their experiences, find support, and accept their identity as right or valid. Blocking access to these important resources would only worsen the already staggeringly high rates of mental health risk and isolation for LGBTQIA+ students who find themselves cut off from a loving community.
It seems obvious that surveillance is not the answer to the mental health crisis. Instead of identifying and referring kids to effective treatment, it exacerbates anxiety, discourages expression, isolates students from sources of trusted help like professionals and peers, wrongly disciplines children, and diverts money away from funding effective treatment. Additionally, the most pronounced harms of surveillance fall on populations that educational systems have historically shunned, including Black, LGBTQIA+, and female students. On the whole, student surveillance is only counterproductive.
It may be hard for parents or school officials to let go and grant students their online freedom, giving students greater responsibility to protect themselves. Still, effective and efficient mental health treatment requires total trust and acceptance, not constantly looking over students’ shoulders or scanning their words with overhyped computer programs or so-called “AI.” Instead of investing in harmful spyware technology, school administrators, parents, and guardians should work together to create safe spaces for learning and foster constructive relationships between students. We should be helping students feel accepted as their whole selves, keeping their trusted secrets in confidence and only sharing them if it is absolutely necessary, and empowering them to grow independently. Instead, we are turning schools, institutions of free thinking, into panopticons, places of absolute surveillance and control that make mental health into an even bigger problem.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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