The Child Mind Institute has reported that half of all mental health disorders show signs before the age of fourteen, yet many do not seek help until adulthood. This crisis is growing, yet the support, when offered by our schools, pushes students away. What can schools do to promote mental health awareness? How can they adjust to better use and develop resources?
What Role Do We Play?
Offering students the level of mental health support they each deserve demands a community of individuals all educated and prepared on what to look for. Some beginning signs of mental illness include:
- Tardiness or absences from school events and commitments
- Extreme mood changes
- Changes in eating habits and appetite
- Abuse of substances
- Difficulty relating and engaging with others
- Change in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
- Angry, irritated, or distant behavior and isolation
- Lack of concentration, fidgeting.
Nearly 80% of students fail to receive the mental health care necessary, and over 50% of students ages 14+ with emotional and behavior disabilities drop out of school. According to Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, policy director for the National Association of School Psychologists, these huge numbers are proving to be detrimental: “Districts that are less resourced might be sharing one psychologist for 3,000 kids. When you have these shortages of these professionals, you’re really only able to serve those kids who are in extreme crisis.”
Who Can Students Turn Towards?
- Family: Often the ones we spend the most with are able to notice the first signs of something going on; whether that be a change in personality, slipping grades, or sleeping the day away. In reality, many family members are unable to recognize serious signs and look them over as “just a phase,” so it is important to educate guardians and siblings on what to watch out for.
- Teachers: Sometimes, students see their teachers much more often than their family members during the week. They see how you perform in school and interact with other students, so change is easily recognizable. Often, teachers have a lot of students to look out for, so some signs may be overlooked, but with the right level of education of school’s faculty, they may be able to raise a flag for their student.
- School Counselors: Counselors are a perfect resource for students who do not feel comfortable communicating with anyone else in their lives – after all, counselors are there for support. However, often counselors work with over 500 students, a number way to high for the personal attention necessary in some cases.
- Friends: Your friends are often experiencing similar challenges to yours, and turning to someone who you trust, that understands you on a different level, can be really beneficial. Finding someone who is there to simply listen goes further than one would expect.
What Can Schools Do?
- START TALKING: School curriculums often play into the sigmas behind mental health challenges by not educating students on such topics;However, why is mental health not spoken about in the same manner or to the same degree as physical health? This lack of education leads students to be unaware of any mental health challenges they may face and directly silences them as they consider seeking support. With a higher level of mental health education, both students and teachers will be able to identify the early signs and slowly, the fear of asking for help will begin to eliminate itself.
- HAVE A SAFE SPACE: It has been proven that students perform better when they feel safe in their environment and it is the school’s responsibility to create a space that does so. Producing a sense of school pride and offering a sense of belonging to students encourages positive peer and teacher relationships, helping students to feel listened to and supported.
- SUPPORT FACULTY TOO: From the school nurse to the art teacher, every member of the school community plays a potential role in supporting a student’s positive mental health. However, faculty are only able to do this if they themselves are supported mentally and have an understanding of what to watch out for. Research has proven that faculty who are trained in mental health are more confident in supporting their students have have a higher level of job satisfaction.
- OPEN DOOR POLICY: Many school counselors struggle by being under-resourced and overloaded with students. This can be hard for a school to overcome; however, it is essential for students to understand they have someone to turn to for support whenever necessary. Many schools have begun implementing “peer counseling” or devoting one mental health trained professional to each grade. Some even have a phone number which students can text whenever they feel necessary. In whatever form, schools need to be available for students when they need to reach out.
More than ever, you can play a role in bringing this information to light and building systems to support yourself and your peers in terms of mental health needs. Please take a few moments to take the “survey” linked above, (click on the word SURVEY) so I can grasp an even better understanding of what students may be experiencing in their own school communities. Thank you for participating in making a difference for our students.