As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to an end, AfterSchool HQ wants to highlight the ways that schools can keep mental health a priority year-round.
Author’s note: Please refer to local and state laws to determine whether certain mental health topics can be covered in the classroom.
Offer training to school staff
School staff and teachers are at the front-line of student interaction during the school day. Giving them the resources to identify the signs of mental illness can make a life-saving difference in a student’s life. Providing this crucial training doesn’t have to break the budget either.
The Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (MHTTC) offers a free self-guided online course on mental health literacy for teachers and school staff. Youth Mental Health First Aid offers an 8-hour training that teaches how to “identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders.” Many of the instructors offering this course do so for free. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers a number of research-backed paid programs, including Signs Matter: Early Detection and More Than Sad.
Provide a safe space and reduce stigma
Despite hashtags like #EndTheStigma, the stigma around mental health still acts as a barrier to students seeking support. Students pick up on the attitude their peers, teachers, and school leadership have regarding the importance of mental health. For instance, if the only time students see the school counselor is when getting in trouble, they may hesitate to use that resource for fear of negative personal or peer perception. Encouraging conversations about mental health — within the classroom, interpersonally, and as a school — will help normalize the practice, making it less likely that students will suffer in silence. Certain students may also find it helpful to have teachers identify themselves or their classroom as a safe space where students can feel comfortable expressing their emotions.
This can be especially important as students live through traumatic current events, such as the global pandemic or police brutality. Proceeding as “normal” or avoiding the topic only enforces the stigma around having complex feelings (either situational or tied to a mental illness). Solutions can be as simple as acknowledging the difficulties students might be facing or taking it a step further, hosting counselor-guided discussions.
Outside the classroom, it’s an unfortunate reality that some families and friends fall short when it comes to mental health support and empathetic listening. Some school districts bring in licensed therapists a couple of times a week, giving students and their families convenient access to therapy. In Fishers, Indiana, this practice yielded an improvement in GPA, as well as reading and math scores, for 55% of students who received therapy services. Other schools have educational services that include parents in the discussion, giving them the tools to better support their child(ren) and recognize any warning signs at home.
Account for how mental health affects learning
Adults in the workforce aren’t alone in experiencing burnout. Students at all performance levels can feel the stress of high workloads and pressure to prepare for college. Teaching positive coping strategies, encouraging physical activity, and building stress management practices into the classroom are all good places to start. Providing access to an array of after-school programming also allows students to blow off steam, connect with their peers, and spend time doing something they are passionate about.
Students living with a mental illness may see a dip in grades or class performance, whether it’s because of issues with concentrating, lack of sleep, or difficulty maintaining habits and making positive choices. When there is a dip in grades, sometimes having a simple conversation to get to the root of the issue and to let the student know someone cares is enough. There’s no one-fix-all solution, but other options include offering flexibility in due dates (when appropriate), allowing test retakes, or referral to a counselor.
To get ahead of things, offering opportunities for students to work together, switching between different learning styles, and giving assignment options so that students can pick a project that suits their strengths are all things to consider.
Support staff mental wellness
Prioritizing mental health in schools must include support for teachers, staff, and leadership. According to a study by RAND Corp., teachers are more likely to report symptoms of depression than the general population. Teachers contending with their own burnout or mental illness may have little energy left to identify and assist students with their issues. Alternately, they may completely ignore their own mental well-being in order to put students’ needs first. While the intention is well-meaning, this kind of self-sacrifice only accelerates teacher burnout and the growing teacher shortage.
Schools can begin by encouraging a workplace culture where employees feel comfortable being open about their mental health. School employees should be able to share their experiences without fear of judgment or reprimand. After the pandemic began, some school leadership began offering routine group support meetings where teachers could share concerns and discuss strategies for supporting student social-emotional needs. This allows teachers a safe place to process what’s going on both inside and outside of the classroom with people who are in a similar situation.
But school employee mental wellness won’t be solved by emotional support alone — oftentimes there are structural changes that need to be addressed in order to increase job satisfaction. Sufficient planning time built into the schedule, mental health days included in employment contracts, or access to mental health resources are all steps that can be taken to improve a teacher’s quality of life.
Taking on mental health in your school may seem daunting, especially when it comes to shifting culture or changing structural issues. Fortunately, mental health concerns in childhood and adolescence can be highly treatable with early intervention and consistent support. So while it may seem overwhelming, positive changes around mental wellness can have a real, life-changing impact on students and staff alike.
Resources for Schools:
- Bring Suicide Prevention to Your School: https://afsp.org/bring-suicide-prevention-to-your-school
- National School Mental Health Projects: https://mhttcnetwork.org/centers/mhttc-network-coordinating-office/national-school-mental-health-implementation-guidance
- Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/model-school-policy-on-suicide-prevention
- Responding to COVID-19 Anxiety & Return to School: https://mhttcnetwork.org/centers/global-mhttc/responding-covid-19-anxiety-return-workschool
- How Schools and Districts Can Support Educator Mental Health: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/dont-forget-the-adults-how-schools-and-districts-can-support-educator-mental-health/2022/03