5 Ways Schools Can Address the Teen Mental Health Crisis Now
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Educator Growth and Development
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.
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.
Educate Students and Parents on Mental Health Best Practices
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.
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.
Use Data to Inform and Guide
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.
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
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.
Build a Core Mental Wellness Team
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:
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.
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.
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.
Build and Sustain a Climate and Culture That Empowers All
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?
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:
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.
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.
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