Student Mental Health: How Schools Can Improve
We all know the importance of physical health. But it’s only recently that mental health started to be recognized as equally important. As educators, focusing on student mental health is important to student success and a healthy school environment.
We know that student mental health has a direct impact on school experiences and success. And we know that mental and emotional stresses contribute to physical illness.
I learned this firsthand my first 2-3 years working as a school-based SLP.
My Personal Experience
I began my working life at my local middle school, working with 6-8th grade students, and spending one day a week at an elementary school with my CF supervisor. Unable to withstand the pressures of the job, I struggled to sleep, fell prey to random sicknesses, and ended up unable to digest food to the point that I was sure there was something seriously wrong with me. After countless doctor’s visits, antibiotics, and even minor surgeries, my husband made an observation: it was stress impacting my body in such terrible ways. And it has taken years of intentional work (and a lot of failures) to get my body and mind to a place where they could work together again.
Student Mental Health Facts
Thinking about my own struggles, it breaks my heart to think of students struggling with their own mental and emotional health. According to the US Department of Health, 1 in 5 children will experience a mental health problem while at school. Mental health problems present themselves in a variety of ways—stress, anxiety, bullying, family issues, depression, learning disabilities, and substance abuse. The most common, however, are ADHD, behavior problems, anxiety, and depression. The signs of mental illness began to emerge at around 14 for most children, although they typically don’t receive help until adulthood. In fact, only about half of students with mental health concerns receive treatment as children.
Students in school are well-placed to receive the help they need and the benefit is mutual. Students who receive good social-emotional and mental support achieve more academic success. In fact, poor mental health has a devastating impact on graduation rates. Overall, schools that provide satisfactory support improve the school’s climate, classroom behavior, and student engagement. For some students, this support is only available in their schools, especially those in rural communities. Surveys suggest that 15% of children aged 12-17 received support in school while 17% received support from a specialty provider.
How Schools Can Help Improve Student Mental Health
Schools can improve the support they provide for student mental health in several ways.
- First, school staff can learn to identify warning signs and educate students to recognize warning signs in themselves and in others. A curriculum can be developed to increase student knowledge, remove stigma and misconceptions, and increase an atmosphere of positivity.
- Second, schools can provide information to students and families in need of outside assistance.
- Third, employing appropriate staff can ensure that students get access to services whether they are able to seek outside support or not. School psychologists are particularly well-placed due to their specialized training in child development, mental health, learning, diversity, culture, and school systems.
- Fourth, using MTSS approaches forges partnerships and collaborations that can reduce gaps, redundancy, and conflict, as well as the stress placed on their primary caregivers.
- Lastly, schools can be open to providing accommodations to students struggling with their mental and emotional health. These struggles can impact academics by inhibiting their ability to pay attention, creating physical complaints, increasing absences, struggling to complete their work, or keeping them from participating in social activities. Just like our students with learning disabilities, accommodations in the classroom can help students with these struggles. Accommodations can include flexible deadlines, de-escalating techniques, pre-planning group discussions, and allowing breaks.
How You Can Monitor Student Mental Health
I think at this point it’s important to review some of the warning signs to be aware of when monitoring student mental health. Being consistently observant of your students’ behaviors is vital to staying on top of any mental and emotional struggles they may be having. Of course, this requires some amount of relationship building. It’s nearly impossible to observe some of these warning signs if you don’t know your students fairly well.
- Persistent sadness — two or more weeks
- Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions
- Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself
- Talking about death or suicide
- Outbursts or extreme irritability
- Out-of-control behavior that can be harmful
- Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality
- Changes in eating habits
- Loss of weight
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in academic performance
- Avoiding or missing school
Resources You Can Use
Outside of observations, directly monitoring your students’ mental health using check-in systems is another way to consistently monitor your students’ well-being. The best check-in systems are ones that you can implement consistently (daily to weekly) and with your students’ comfort in mind. Students, especially those who are struggling, may wish to respond to such check-ins anonymously. Use your best judgment when choosing what kind of check-in system to use. Look below for a few ideas from teacher-authors on TPT!
It’s easy to become overwhelmed as a teacher and adding student mental health to our plates can feel scary. But with a 44% increase in students reporting suicidal thoughts from 2009 to 2019, taking steps to support our students in this way is perhaps even more important than focusing on academics.
When thinking about improving your approach to student mental health, remember:
- Be aware of warning signs.
- Make observations and direct communication with your students an intentional part of your days.
- Treat student mental health as equally important to their physical health and academic success by using similar procedures and plans to support it.
- Remember: physical health, mental health, and student success are intrinsically linked.
Looking for people to follow who specialize in areas of mental health? Check out a few of these content creators!
Association for Children’s Mental Health
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Association of School Psychologists