Contributed by Aleksandra Grabowski
The time is now to address mental health in schools.
The statistics of the past decade have indicated that there’s a veritable crisis for students at every grade level. A report from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that as many as 1 in 5 children in the nation suffer from a mental disorder. With school being a major stressor in many students’ lives, it only makes sense to incorporate emotional and psychological wellness into parent, teacher, and administrator dialogues.
However, talking about mental health can be uncomfortable and scary. Approaches to this topic must be carefully planned and scaled to appropriate degrees depending on student age. While schools may feel like they don’t have the time or funding to spend on mental health the benefits are invaluable, ranging from better attendance to even improving educational outcomes through increasing test scores and bolstering social competency.
With May being National Mental Health Month, here is how teachers and administrators can start the work toward incorporating mental health awareness into school culture, in ways both large and small:
Take it seriously: Research has shown that mental wellness is just as important as physical wellness in a students’ life. It’s time to take mental wellbeing seriously by making it part of standard curricula for every grade level. New York has recently become the first state to mandate mental health education within the classroom. Encourage your school’s administration to follow suit.
Support social work: The stresses at school are seemingly unending — dealing with heavy course loads, body image issues, troubles at home, bullying, fear after recent school shootings, college applications, and figuring out how to pay for college. Social workers and counselors are trained to help with these issues. Unfortunately, most schools are massively understaffed, with roughly one social worker and one counselor per 500 students. To give perspective, the American School Counselor Association’s recommended caseload is 250 students per staff member.
Teachers should also be actively plugging the services that mental health workers, guidance counselors, or social workers offer to students. A great way to do this is having one come into the classroom to talk to students, giving them an opportunity to see firsthand the people they can turn to when they need support or help.
Go beyond academia: Encourage your students’ participation in art, drama, music, and athletics programs. Let your students know that grades are important, but they shouldn’t dominate one’s life to the point of unhealthiness. Going beyond traditional academic classroom settings can provide important stress relief to schoolwork-burdened students.
- Theater has been found as a useful therapeutic strategy and tool in mental health recovery.
- Physical exercise has long been proven to have anti-anxiety effects and a positive influence on mental wellbeing.
- Music programs in schools are crucial creative outlets for students that provide learning opportunities beyond the classroom.
- Art is a stimulating practice for children and adults alike that is shown to have many therapeutic benefits.
Get teachers trained to talk about it, then talk about it: Before addressing students, ensure that you yourself feel comfortable and confident leading this discussion. Learn how to recognize the signs of mental illness and what to do about them. From there, have discussions with struggling students and consider steps that you can take to help them feel as supported as possible (e.g. allowing flexible deadlines on assignments, providing creative outlets for emotions, etc.).
If you feel comfortable, consider taking a break from academic content to have whole-class discussions about mental health. In many schools, mental health is still viewed as a taboo and the longer that perspective persists, the more harm it does to students. Discussion about mental health can range from simply talking about anxiety-management strategies to deeper topics like emotional awareness. There are plenty of lesson plans that can help guide teachers through these discussions in ways that make it interactive and productive, and teachers can use that time to also share resources that students can access on their own on an as-needed basis, such as online screeners, mental health organizations, or reading materials like the ones we recommend below:
- Mrs. Gorski, I Think I Have the Wiggle Fidgets by Barbara Esham: For ages 6-8; told from the perspective of a young boy with ADD/ADHD who has trouble focusing in the classroom.
- Swing Sideways by Nanci Turner Stevenson: For ages 8-12; a story incorporating themes of loss, friendship, and family that can be enjoyed by audiences much older than 8-12.
- Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen: For ages 9+; exploring sadness, loss, and depression through simple, metaphorical writing that can resonate with anyone, from younger children to adults.
- Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella: For ages 12+; following a young girl and her experience with an anxiety disorder, good for middle to high schoolers.
Take part in national initiatives: Participating in national programs is an easy way to bring mental health awareness to your students. At the same time, it also shows them that those who need support are not alone, that there is a network both nationally and worldwide that validates their struggle and can provide them resources to help.
- R U OK? DAY is an originally Australian program that focuses on starting a conversation about mental wellbeing with those in your life, but students from all over the world are able to participate.
- Paint the Stigma is a program that encourages the use of creative outlets for people to express their feelings and experiences with mental illness. Have a day for artistic release in your classroom and encourage students to “paint the stigma” as well, providing art supplies and a blank canvas to let those emotions flow.
- World Mental Health Day is a day that brings national awareness to mental health issues.
Take breaks: It really is as easy as taking 15 minutes every day during class to help your students unwind and practice mindfulness through exercises like meditation or yoga. There are plenty of apps out there with guided meditations for you and your class to follow. Some are designed for use in the K-12 classroom and free for teachers, like the Calm app. There are even guides and a variety of different free lesson plans for how to bring yoga into the classroom that doesn’t require yoga experience to implement.
This National Mental Health Month, take steps towards incorporating emotional and psychological wellbeing into the classroom. While many structural issues that influence mental health are outside of the control of educators, there are ways to help on a smaller scale. Resources for teachers and students are plentiful, and online discussion boards can connect teachers with other educators who are taking steps to bring mental health out of the shadows to make it visible.
Remember: No teacher is alone in this endeavor, and just one individual could make the difference for a student in need.