A Teachers' Guide to Mental Health in Schools

Written by: Sasha Blakeley

The importance of good mental health is a topic that has received increasing press attention in recent years. The culture around mental health is shifting toward a better understanding of what mental health is, the issues that can arise in treating mental health, and the potential consequences of not taking mental health seriously.

For teachers, the topic of mental health is an important one. Their students may experience mental health issues in schools, and well-informed teachers are more likely to be able to provide some of the education and resources that students need to manage their mental health effectively. Additionally, having access to education and assistance about mental health issues can go a long way to helping students feel comfortable in their own skin and can mitigate the worst aspects of mental illness, particularly among young and vulnerable populations.

How Poor Mental Health Impacts Students

Mental health conditions are a severe and worsening issue for children and teenagers in the United States and worldwide. According to recent research by Mental Health America, over 16.39% of youth aged 12 to 17 experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also released research indicating that mental health issues in young people are becoming more common. Diagnoses of anxiety and depression among youth aged 6 to 17 rose from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2011-2012.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp uptick in mental health issues among children and teenagers; in 2021 the CDC reported that 37% of high school students said their mental health worsened during the pandemic. Although most students are back in schools now, the long-term impact of the pandemic on mental health will likely continue for some time, especially for youth who lost loved ones to the virus. Because youth mental health is such a severe issue, it is more important than ever that it be discussed in schools.

Factors that May Impact Student Mental Health

  • Family history of mental conditions: Although anyone can experience poor mental health, some factors increase an individual's odds of developing mental health conditions. Students with a family history of mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder are more likely to experience those conditions themselves. Poverty—particularly housing and food insecurity—can also contribute to student mental health concerns.
  • Marginalization: Any student who experiences marginalization is also likely to have worse mental health; research indicates that students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
  • Poverty or trauma: Additionally, those with unstable home lives may bear added stress and be at greater risk for mental health conditions. Young people who experience traumatic events or abuse could be at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may seriously impact their ability to thrive in an educational environment.
  • Neurodivergence: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is not considered a mental health condition so much as a neurodivergent presentation and a disability. However, it is another issue that impacts many students and is often discussed alongside mental illnesses.
  • Negative self-image: Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are also mental illnesses that frequently affect teenagers, sometimes with deadly consequences. It is a good idea for teachers to be well-versed in the basics of all these issues to understand student experiences better.

Recognizing Depression and Anxiety in Students

Several different mental health conditions impact young people. Understanding these common mental health topics and diagnoses can give teachers the necessary information to help students navigate their experiences. One of the most common mental health disorders is depression, or major depressive disorder (MDD). Symptoms of depression can include:

  • Intense, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
  • Lack of energy
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Nonspecific physical pains
  • Suicidal ideation

Depression is a serious illness. According to current government research, around 50 million adults in the United States have experienced mental illnesses, including depression. In adolescents, depression is more common among girls than boys.

It is worth noting that not everyone who experiences a depressive episode will be diagnosed with clinical depression. However, whether or not an individual is diagnosed, they still need appropriate treatment and assistance in recovering from their experiences.

Another major mental health issue is anxiety. While it is normal to feel nervous or stressed sometimes, just like it is normal to feel sad sometimes, anxiety disorders are mental illnesses that cause people to experience much higher anxiety levels than normal. There are numerous anxiety disorders, but some symptoms common to most or all of them include:

  • Consistent feelings of fear, dread, or nervousness
  • Catastrophic thinking or difficulty controlling worried thoughts
  • Panic attacks, which can include rapid heart rate and hyperventilation
  • Physical symptoms like stomach aches and nausea
  • Changes in sleep and eating habits

Some common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. It is possible to have both clinical depression and clinical anxiety simultaneously—in fact, having one may make the other more likely. Issues like substance use disorders can develop in people who have anxiety or depression as a way to cope with the emotional symptoms they are experiencing.

Supporting Student Mental Health

Supporting students' mental health in schools is vital so that young people do not feel alone when they are struggling. Many schools have guidance counselors, professionals whose job is to help students with any issues they may be experiencing. That includes mental health issues, although guidance counselors are not necessarily mental health experts. Teachers can also provide emotional support for their students, although they should be mindful not to act as therapists; however, they can and should recommend any relevant support resources to students if possible.

A significant aspect of mental health education is learning what mental health is all about and how to manage one's mental health sustainably. That is one area where teachers can be of great help. It may be easier for students to understand their emotional well-being and to access helpful resources if teachers educate them about mental health conditions at a young age.

The Importance of De-stigmatization

Historically, a great deal of social stigma has been associated with mental illness. In previous generations, it was frowned upon to discuss mental health issues openly, and it was more common for people struggling with their mental health to do so privately. That culture of shame made it much more difficult for people to seek and receive adequate treatment for mental health conditions. Fortunately, the culture around mental health has changed rapidly in recent decades. It is now much more acceptable for people to discuss their mental health experiences openly, which can allow people to stand in solidarity with one another and find common ground in their experiences, both positive and negative.

De-stigmatization is a central part of mental health education in the classroom. Teachers should avoid outdated and offensive terminology when discussing mental health and ensure that their conversations are rooted in compassion. Students are more likely to speak up about the help they need when they do not expect to be judged or shamed for what they say. It is essential to explain that mental health conditions are as real as physical ones and that experiencing mental illness is not a moral failing or a sign of weakness under any circumstances.

Teaching Mental Health in the Classroom

To teach mental health, educators first need to do their own research. It may be beneficial to read through the relevant sections of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the definitive text used by the American Psychiatric Association to establish diagnostic criteria and treatment recommendations for different mental illnesses. There are also many more accessible guides to common mental health conditions available online. A solid understanding of these issues can make it much easier for teachers to provide accurate and respectful lessons when engaging in mental health teaching activities.

In addition to specific lessons about mental health—ideally in health classes or other formal and appropriate environments—teachers can create an inclusive environment where students can feel safe to ask questions and talk about their own experiences with mental health. They can also start discussions about self-care practices, coping skills, and treatment options for various mental health conditions. That process, which can significantly improve students' lives, starts when teachers find ways to talk honestly and openly about mental health with their students.

Support a Healthy Classroom

Teachers can do a lot to create a healthy classroom where students' mental health is a priority. That can mean having open discussions about mental health, but it must also mean respecting students' privacy. Nobody should ever feel pressured to disclose information about mental health experiences or their medical history.

It may be helpful for teachers to start regular practices to support student mental health in the classroom, like daily or weekly check-ins. Another option is to have quiet areas in classrooms where students can spend time if they feel overwhelmed or frustrated. In addition to helping students with their emotional well-being, quiet areas can be valuable for students who get angry easily or for students on the autism spectrum who experience sensory overload and need a place to feel at peace.

Provide Mental Health Tips

Although the prevalence of mental health conditions among young people is worrying, many mental health tips are proven to make one's symptoms much more manageable. Some of this advice might seem very simple, but it can make all the difference, particularly for those who might have been neglecting some of them. Important tips that can improve mental health include:

Strategy Impact
Nutrition Eating healthy food—and eating enough of it—can boost mental health and keep both the mind and body functioning well.
Sleep Many people do not get enough sleep. Teenagers particularly need plenty of rest each night to function properly. Adequate sleep can help stabilize emotions and improve mental health.
Exercise Movement is a great way for people to connect with their bodies and maintain physical and mental health.
Positive self-talk Being kind to oneself is a major way to maintain positive mental health and avoid spiraling into depressive and anxious thought patterns.
Staying on top of responsibilities It gets harder to maintain good mental health when one's responsibilities become overwhelming; proper time management and organization can make a big difference.
Asking for help Knowing when to ask for help and having a strong support network can make it significantly easier for people to get the assistance they need.
Socializing Maintaining social connections can help an individual stay busy and engaged with a supportive network of people.

Review Self-Care Practices

In addition to math, science, and writing, teachers impart a whole host of life skills to their students. Some of those life skills can and should include mental health self-care strategies.

Teachers may want to brainstorm self-care tactics with students, keeping the above list and other professional recommendations in mind. Having students come up with some of these strategies themselves might increase the likelihood of them following their own advice; hearing self-care tips from outside sources can make it easier to dismiss them as unnecessary or pointless.

Teaching students how to manage their time effectively, study well for tests, and develop organizational skills can indirectly improve mental health by helping students keep on top of their school work. Some students might need to ask for extensions on their schoolwork, and when possible, it is generally the compassionate choice for teachers to provide students with options in those cases. Some students might find that their self-worth is very closely tied to their grades, so working to dismantle that connection and helping students reduce their stress around school success can also be a step in the right direction.

Provide Additional Resources

  • Helplines: Teachers should have mental health resources on hand for students who may need them. That includes a list of helplines that students can call if they are struggling, particularly if they are dealing with suicidal ideation. Providing helplines that are both general and specific—helplines for all teens versus helplines for LGBTQ youth, for instance—is a good way to ensure that students' needs can be met by these services.
  • Youth support groups: If there are local youth support groups, teachers should also have the details of those groups for any interested students.
  • Provide a safe space: If possible, teachers should remind students that they are available to talk so that students know they have access to support. Teachers should always ensure that the resources and support they offer are as non-judgmental and compassionate as possible so that students can talk about their experiences without worrying.
  • Professional mental health assistance: Sometimes individuals cannot manage their mental health alone and need professional support. Teachers are not medical professionals, but they may want to talk to students about the medical treatments available when discussing mental health in the classroom. Therapy is a good option for many people, and reducing the stigma around attending therapy can also be an excellent strategy for encouraging people to seek help when they need it. Teachers should make sure that students are aware of available treatment options and that they can assist students in accessing them.

When talking to students about their mental health, teachers should be clear on what their duties and responsibilities are. It is always best to respect students' privacy when discussing sensitive topics. However, there are times when teachers may need to speak to students' parents, school administrators, or healthcare professionals, generally if students are likely to be a danger to themselves or others. Knowing which situations call for further action and which do not is part of creating a safe space for students' mental health support.

Prioritizing Teacher Mental Health

One commonly neglected aspect of the discussion around mental health in schools is teachers' mental health. Teaching can be a very stressful and challenging career, and educators will be much better able to address their students' needs adequately if their own mental health is good.

The self-care tips described above are a good starting point for teachers' mental health, but anyone who feels that they are struggling more than usual may wish to speak to their primary care provider. Having adequate support for mental health conditions can help teachers create an inclusive environment where all students and teachers can thrive.

Teaching sometimes causes burnout, a psychological phenomenon wherein people find that they can no longer cope with the stresses of their jobs. The pandemic has had a particularly severe impact on teachers, and burnout is more common than ever. Getting the appropriate mental health support is one of the best ways that teachers can prevent or mitigate burnout and remain able to teach. Teachers should know that burnout is common, that it does not deserve to be stigmatized, and that it is not permanent. The proper professional and medical support can help teachers recover their enthusiasm for teaching and continue their careers into the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is mental health a problem in schools?

    There are many factors that influence youth mental health, including school stress and genetic and environmental factors. The lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are also having a pronounced effect on students' mental health.

  • What is the school's role in mental health?

    Schools can provide many forms of support to students who are struggling with mental health. One of the best things schools can do is teach students about mental health so that they are informed and empowered to seek out the help they need.

  • What are the 5 ways to improve mental health?

    Nutrition, sleep, and exercise are three pillars of good mental health. Positive self-talk and socialization are also crucial for keeping people's mental health in check.

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