Youth in the United States are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Even before the pandemic, mental health challenges among young people were on the rise, with substantial increases in the rates of depressive episodes and suicidal ideation among young adults ages 12-25.
Most students face Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are highly correlated with mental health challenges. Trauma affects between half and two-thirds of children and youth in the United States, and over 15% of youth ages 12-17 experienced at least one depressive episode in the past year. Yet, only 56% of students believe that their schools value mental health.
And to compound the problem, the pandemic caused an increase in the number of young people who show symptoms of depression, suicidal ideation, and other mental health challenges.
Providing all young people with adequate mental health care requires a combined effort from many institutions and individuals. School counselors are an important resource for student mental health, but nearly 1 in 5 students do not have any access to a school counselor. In addition to guidance counselors and mental health professionals, teachers are a valuable resource for students. Teachers interact daily with hundreds of students, which uniquely situates them to identify students who may be struggling and refer them to needed resources.
- Extreme and abrupt change in attitude
- Lower quality of work and/or drop in grades
- Difficulty concentrating in class
- Lost interest in school, sports, or other activities
- Frequently sleeping in class
- Drinking/substance use, self-harm, and other risky behaviors
- Repeated complaints of “aches and pains” without obvious causes
- Feeling exceptionally down or gloomy
Over 60% of youth who need mental health services for major depression never receive them, and two-thirds of adolescent students who do receive services only access them through school. As such, teachers who observe the above behaviors in a student should not be afraid to act on their behalf. Teachers can ask the student’s other teachers if they are observing the same patterns and speak to the student’s guidance counselor if they have one. Teachers can also express concern and support to the student and their family directly and connect them to resources available through the school.
Although discussing mental health with students might be uncomfortable, these conversations can be lifesaving for students struggling with severe mental illness. Teachers can help identify a need and connect individuals to appropriate resources.
In addition to trauma-responsive practices, teachers can implement the following methods to create a safe classroom environment for students with a variety of mental health needs:
- Avoid stigmatizing language and attitudes. Students are less likely to ask for help when they feel labeled or humiliated.
- Allow students to take a break from their work if they need it. Encourage them to take a short walk, do relaxation exercises, or just take a few minutes to reset.
- Provide opportunities for students to be physically active and use creative skills in the classroom.
- Use positive psychology to create a safe classroom community.
- Model emotionally and mentally healthy behaviors in interactions with students.
- Use students’ preferred names and pronouns.
All who work with young people have an urgent responsibility to address youth mental health. Fifty percent of lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14 and 75% begin by age 24, but over 60% of youth who suffer from major depression do not receive treatment. Prioritizing youth mental health will “lay the foundation for a healthier, more resilient, and more fulfilled nation.”
Additionally, several bills have been introduced in this Congressional session that, if passed, would provide additional resources to schools and mental health providers to help address this growing and complex challenge.
- U.S. Department of Education – “3-part webinar series on promoting best practices, resources, and understanding existing barriers to mental health services for students.”
- School Mental Health Journal Article – “Teacher and School Characteristics Associated with the Identification and Referral of Adolescent Depression and Oppositional Defiant Disorders by U.S. Teachers.”