5 Ways Schools Can Address the Teen Mental Health Crisis Now

Addressing student mental health is no longer a task to be handled solely by professionals outside the confines of school. Student mental health was already declining in the years between 2010 and 2019, as we saw marked increases in anxiety, depression, and suicidality. These issues were only exacerbated by the pandemic and continue to be deeply impactful within the walls of classrooms.

Although teachers and students will say that they are benefiting from the return to the social and academic structures of in-school learning, during the COVID lockdown both teachers and students experienced traumatic loss, fear, and absence of social connection. Remote instruction was of little comfort as those students who could log on found learning through screens was woefully inadequate. Plus, many students lacked access to the devices or internet connectivity necessary to log on. Teachers, who were trying to teach in a format they had never used and with no training, were subject to a barrage of criticism from parents and public officials.

When school routines resumed, teachers across the board talked about a loss of executive function in students. Behavioral problems increased, and sadness and anxiety became more apparent. The situation has resulted in a persistent flight from schools by both educators and students. For students, this flight takes the form of school refusal and truancy. Educators are simply leaving the profession. It’s fair to say that there was a collective trauma at work.

Whenever trauma happens, it’s essential to restore structure and a sense of safety as soon as possible. Having predictable structure, consistency, and relationships with peers and caring adults is so important. Unfortunately, what people in schools have been experiencing is a perfect storm—students are demonstrating complex needs and too many of the adults are experiencing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue begins as feelings of helplessness and powerlessness in the face of suffering. The continued sense of helplessness soon results in a loss of empathy and responsiveness and ultimately a feeling of being overwhelmed by work demands.

Educators lack training in handling student mental health issues, a key driver of compassion fatigue. Both teachers and students suffer as a result. Falling grades, declining attendance, increased disciplinary actions, and violence prevent students from learning and achieving academically, socially, and emotionally.

The statistics are not on our side. The latest report from the CDC sheds light on the trauma experienced by teen girls, and especially by those who identify as LGBTQ+ or questioning. These teens are confronting the highest levels of sexual violence, sadness, and hopelessness ever reported to the Youth Risk Behavioral Survey (YRBS). Schools must step up and partner in efforts to stem the trauma.

Our approach to student mental health issues has long been hands-off and reactive. Supports are now available to schools to help address these problems proactively for the benefit of both students and educators. Here are five ways in which schools can make a meaningful positive impact on student mental health and wellness.

1. Educator Growth and Development

Education lifts all boats. Teachers are not mental health professionals, but they can be trained to recognize when students need help, make proper referrals, and apply effective interventions when required. Teachers know their students. They are the first line of defense. When teachers know how to respond, they feel more confident rather than helpless and students feel that they are receiving the support they need. Attending to problems when they begin is the best-case scenario before issues compound and worsen over time.

Providing teachers with the tools and strategies to foster healthy relationships and openness for learning does not have to be burdensome. Small increments of ongoing professional development on a self-paced and flexible schedule fit seamlessly within the course of the year, fulfilling professional development requirements.

2. Educate Students and Parents on Mental Health Best Practices

While it’s important to build student satisfaction through voice, choice, recognition, and social interaction, raising student and parent awareness of mental health best practices is equally important. We can soften mental health stigma much more effectively through embedded and consistent health instruction for students than we can with occasional “stigma-free” rallies or assemblies. We can enhance the effectiveness of what students are learning by providing workshops for parents that are aligned with the learning outcomes for students and staff.

Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are the three foundational pieces for well-being. Explore these topics and encourage students and parents to include these in their daily routines. Make sure students, staff, and parents know when to seek help and the resources that are available. The entire community benefits when we follow a healthy lifestyle, embrace the issues without fear, and get help when needed.

3. Use Data to Inform and Guide

Educators have access to data providing cues to student mental health issues. Meaningful evidence can be used to build pathways to well-being. Data including grade fluctuations, excessive non-medical absenteeism, increased school nurse visits, and behavioral incidents shine a light on underlying issues that need attention or intervention.

Conduct periodic surveys of students, staff, and parents. Inquiries like this help to measure any attitude change because of your programs and will help you identify adjustments that will improve these programs. Track factors such as staff morale, student satisfaction, and parent satisfaction.

Gathering data and resources makes sense as you plan for funding for your initiatives. Reports on progress toward goals and objectives demonstrate successes and uncover any needs for improvements when expanding on programs and taking on more objectives.

4. Build a Core Mental Wellness Team

While most educators eagerly embrace positive school culture, building a pathway to wellness can seem overwhelming without stakeholder commitment and buy-in. Administrators are key to laying the groundwork for positive change. Make sure to:

  • Select a team of motivated stakeholders that includes teachers, school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, and at least one administrator. Combining staff with different roles and administrator participation are crucial to ensure that the group’s plans can be efficiently approved and implemented.

  • Provide sustained training for this core group on mental health awareness that gives staff members and parents knowledge of issues such as suicide risk assessment, trauma-informed care, school refusal, and self-injurious behavior. This increased knowledge positions staff to support student well-being and reduces the risk of compassion fatigue and burnout.

  • Help your core team feel comfortable and confident addressing concerns, turnkeying knowledge, and advocating for best practices that support student mental health.

  • Help teachers recognize student mental health concerns and intervene effectively through proven strategies.

  • Create a web of support for both students and staff, ensuring they’re set up for success.

Establishing this core team of mental wellness leaders is a great way of setting yourself up for my next recommendation, building and sustaining a climate and culture that supports mental wellness.

5. Build and Sustain a Climate and Culture That Empowers All

As mental health issues in schools increase yearly, schools that shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to mental wellness employ best practices to empower and retain teachers and staff and improve students’ ability to grow and achieve academically. You may be wondering—how do we determine the best practices to employ to maximize mental wellness in your school community?

This is where partnering with others can help. An accreditation program will provide quality standards, benchmarks, and support to actively build and nurture a mental health wellness climate and culture. Important components include:

  • Defining school and district-wide values.

  • Committing to prioritizing mental wellness for students and staff.

  • Developing and executing an action plan that balances academics with social-emotional learning.

  • Achieving widespread stakeholder representation and buy-in.

  • Measuring progress, updating plans, and maintaining adherence to standards.

A sustained commitment to climate and culture paves the way for happier, more committed, and more effective teachers, administrators, and staff. Students become optimistic, more engaged, focused, and academically successful. Parents feel confident their children receive the support they need for proper growth and development. As a bonus, district costs decrease when struggling students no longer need the help of expensive out-of-district programs.

Student mental health initiatives should not merely be consigned to outside professionals, but should be embedded in school climate and culture so that students feel included and engaged. Student well-being is deeply embedded in every aspect of school life, and rightly so. Educators no longer need to second-guess themselves when confronted with students who need help. The supports are now readily available.

Schools that embed best practices for school-wide health and well-being eliminate the causes of disengagement and alienation. They’re too busy embracing the possibilities of growth and potential for students and educators alike. Building a path to a positive school climate and culture is the key to a thriving school community that lifts all boats.