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Student Mental Health: Why Educators Should Care and How They Can Help

  • Joanna
  • April 5, 2023

Between 2019 and 2021, suicide attempts by teen girls increased by more than 51% according to a study by the CDC.

In just three years, the number of teen girls in our country who attempted to take their own lives increased by more than half. This news knocked the wind out of us and made us think about how we are supporting our students’ mental health and why, as educators, we should care.

Why Care About Student Mental Health?

As educators, we naturally care about our students and their well-being, including their mental health. We should also care because it impacts their ability to engage with and do their best in school.

A 2016 study published in Teaching and Teacher Education found that student mental health concerns cause challenges with things like:

  • Academic performance
  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Behavior

Mental health is a common dropout risk factor according to a report from America’s Promise Alliance. Julia Wilkins Ph.D. also wrote in a whitepaper for the National Dropout Prevention Center for Students With Disabilities that it is also a barrier to re-enrollment for students who have already dropped out of school.

Caring about and supporting our students’ mental health makes a positive impact on student engagement, but the Early Intervention Foundation shared three additional compelling reasons why schools should provide mental health interventions:

  • Schools are in a unique position to reach children.
  • School-based interventions work.
  • They can remove some common barriers.

How to Support Student Mental Health

Mental health positions are one of the top understaffed positions in public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Currently, there is 1 school psychologist for every 1,162 students nationally. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of 1 psychologist for every 500 students.

School counselors and social workers are also in short supply, and these three roles work together to provide school-based mental health services for kids. However, the solution isn’t as simple as hiring more staff – there aren’t enough qualified workers to fill these positions. So what else can schools do to support student mental health?

Schedule Regular Check-Ins With Students

Teachers can implement regular check-ins with students by playing games or conducting classroom-wide activities. Kami shared some ideas for activities on its blog that include:

  • Signaling – Having students give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to show how they’re feeling that day.
  • Using reflection apps – Having students answer a question on their school device. This provides some anonymity so they aren’t sharing how they’re feeling with the entire class.
  • Writing in a workbook or journal.

These are some easy ways to incorporate mental health check-ins into class that don’t put too much of an additional burden on teachers.

Conduct Mental Health Training for Students and Teachers

The National Council for Mental Wellbeing offers a course called teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) that teaches 10th-12th graders how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental health and substance use challenges in their friends and peers.

Schools like Ramsey High School in Ramsey, New Jersey, are requiring all sophomores to take this class, which can be delivered in person or blended, in an attempt to create a culture of mental health in their schools. The program helped a teen’s friends identify that she was having a panic attack during an outing to the local shopping mall, and they were able to help her calm down and connect with her dad during the experience.

In addition to giving teens the tools they need to help their friends and peers, the program also helps teens understand some of the common mental health challenges youth face, reducing the stigma around mental health.

Create an On-Campus Wellness Oasis

School may be the only place students have to relax – Why not create a safe space for them to take a few deep breaths, take care of their mental health, and talk to an adult?

Creating a wellness center on campus can provide more support than the interventions teachers can provide in the classroom. Often called zen dens, student wellness centers are dedicated spaces where students can go to focus on their mental health and reduce stress. Some schools convert classrooms or storage rooms into zen dens and, to make the room helpful to students, include things like:

  • Comfortable seating
  • Weighted blankets
  • Art supplies
  • Fidget toys
  • Snacks and drinks like herbal tea

Get Parents Involved

We can’t emphasize enough the importance of parent/family involvement in a student’s education. According to the CDC, having parents involved in their education helps students:

  • Get better grades
  • Choose healthier behaviors
  • Have better social skills
  • More likely to avoid unhealthy behaviors
  • Less likely to be emotionally distressed

For more information and resources to help get parents in your school involved with their children’s education, visit the CDC website.

Build Alternative Pathways With Robust Human Support

While there are many, many things schools can do to support student mental health, some students need a highly personalized approach that cannot be addressed with universal supports such as tMHFA.

Offering students an alternative pathway to graduation that allows them to complete their coursework in the comfort of their space may be beneficial to some students who are facing extenuating mental health challenges.

The parent of a student in Everett, Washington, was struggling to get his daughter to school each day due to her social anxiety. He had tried everything to get his daughter to go to school, but every morning was a challenge, and she fought to stay home daily. The school district recommended that they look into the district’s online alternative program designed especially for students who can’t or won’t engage with traditional in-person offerings.

This program turned out to be a good fit for his daughter because she could complete her coursework at any time and from anywhere. She didn’t need to go to class and be around other students any longer – she finished her high school requirements from the comfort and safety of home, which led to fewer fights and tears and a happier student.

But time and place flexibility wasn’t the only thing she received from the program. She also received personalized support from a team of adults who could provide one-on-one support for her academic and social-emotional needs.

The program provided three key things that helped this at-risk student become a successful high school graduate:

  • Flexibility
  • Accountability
  • Support

For more information on how you could bring a program like this to your school district, please fill out our Request for Information form.