All across the United States students are suffering from mental health issues amounting to a silent pandemic, and in many cases it is going unaddressed.
Mental Health Impacts Students of Every Age
The American College Health Association (ACHA) conducted surveys in 2018 and 2019. They found that 60 percent of respondents felt overwhelming anxiety and 40 percent of them had experienced severe depression. They reported that the depression impacted their ability to function in daily life.
Another study conducted in 2019 by Pennsylvania State University found that the demand for mental health services on campus rapidly increased by 30 to 40 percent despite only a 5 percent increase in enrollment.
However, it isn’t just college students who are grappling with mental health.
Children as young as five years old commit suicide despite the suicide literature largely starting at 12-14 years of age.
It is estimated that every one in five children living in the US demonstrate signs of a mental health disorder annually. To put this into perspective, a classroom of 25 students will have five who are struggling with a mental health disorder, including depression, anxiety, and addiction. This means that in a school with the national average of 526 students would have 105 students struggling with mental illness.
Most Students Won’t Seek Help
Despite these high numbers, it has been reported that almost 80 percent of these children who require mental health services will never get them. Part of this could be because they don’t have access to them, but a big reason is because they don’t feel like they have anyone they can reach out to who will care or help them.
Among depression and anxiety, suicide and eating disorders are also far too common among students.
Domestic Violence Impacts Mental Health
It has also been discovered that children who experience domestic violence are at higher risk for mental health disorders and this violence can negatively impact not only their school performance, but that of their classmates as well. Every year, 10 to 20 percent of children experience violence at home.
The impact of domestic violence and mental health disorders can be seen in the classroom as chronic absence, low test scores and achievement, disruptive behavior, and dropping out. If these things go untreated, students can be negatively affected in their adult lives as well.
“Kids who suffer from mental health disorders … inevitably miss out on opportunities for learning and building relationships,” said David Anderson, an expert on schools and mental health at the Child Mind Institute.
Mental health disorders pose critical challenges for students that need to be addressed. However, mental health in schools also heavily impacts teachers and staff.
Student Mental Health Impacts Teachers
Despite the vast amount of students who experience mental health disorders, the majority of teachers and school staff never receive any type of mental health training.
“Teachers are trained to teach. We have all taken a child psychology class, but we’re not trained to work with kids with mental health needs,” says Amanda Aiken, Senior Director of Schools at New Orleans College Prep.
Teachers often don’t have the resources they need and are often overextended with countless projects and expectations on their plates. It is far too easy for teachers to experience exhaustion and burnout, which can lead to a high turnover rate.
When teachers are so overwhelmed this also creates the unfortunate opportunity for children in need to fall through the cracks or for a higher focus on “behavior problems” but not the underlying cause.
Other school staff, including nurses, counselors, and psychologists, experience similar lack of resources and training. On top of this, there are simply too many students assigned to each staff member. It is nearly impossible to manage all of them. A study by NPR found that an average class consists of 21-27 students per teacher. The average school counselor oversees 491 students, there are 1,151 students per school nurse, and 1,400 students per school psychologist.
The numbers are overwhelming and school staff is not equipped to handle the number of caseloads they are often assigned. Even school nurses receive very little mental health training.
Donna Mazyck, the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses, said
that she experienced immense overwhelm when she began as a school nurse. She recounts seeing students who were suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief. Mazyck also shared that it was common to see students who “didn’t even know what to do to calm themselves down,” she says. “They didn’t know how to cope.”
The emotional and mental toll that this can take on teachers, nurses and other school staff can be great and can also negatively impact their ability to facilitate an effective learning environment for students.
Why Teachers Need Training in Mental Health
Education and training in mental health is essential for teachers and school staff. Training can encourage confidence in the school staff when it comes to addressing mental health concerns in students and it can positively affect the mental health of teachers.
Training Means Prevention and Intervention
Training in mental health also plays a crucial role in prevention and intervention.
David Jobes, the head of Catholic University’s Suicide Prevention Lab, shares that suicide is typically not a spur of the moment reaction. In fact, children can think about and plan their own deaths for weeks. This is where schools become very important.
While students won’t open up to parents about contemplating suicide, Jobes says “They’re going to be letting their friends know, dropping hints, writing essays that their English teacher might pick up, telling coaches.”
He explains that when school staff is aware of what to look for and how to address this issue, crises can be avoided.
“We know very clearly that, with proper identification, proper support and treatments that are suicide-specific, we absolutely can make a difference and save lives. Most suicidal people who talk about suicide don’t really want to be dead. They’re giving other people lots of indications, lots of warning signs, lots of communications that this is something that they would like to not do, but it requires people identifying that and getting them the proper help,” said Jobes.
“Some of the warning signs would certainly be depression and…loss of concentration. People not seeming like themselves. Insomnia can be a big risk factor. Other warning signs might include irritability, withdrawal. And the thing that’s really critical: Lots of people have those symptoms and are not thinking about suicide. It’s really when the symptoms add up in the mind of that person, where they think ‘The way I deal with this is to take my life.’ ”
Teachers Play an Important Role
Teachers and staff stand at the forefront of helping to notice cries for help from students who are struggling. Education and training can provide schools with the resources and information they need in order to effectively combat these situations and create safe spaces for students to seek help.
50 percent of students surveyed believe that “people think less of someone who has received mental health treatment.”
It is important for teachers to know how to identify mental health disorders and know which questions to ask students. In some cases, a simple “What’s wrong?” can make all the difference and offer students a chance to open up.
Since many students see their teachers more frequently throughout the week than their own parents, it is time they receive the proper resources they need to be prepared to help students struggling with mental health.
Mental health training also allows teachers and staff to be able to identify students who are struggling, but whose behavior might come off as simply “being a troublemaker” if staff doesn’t know what to look for.
For example, students trying to reach out for help may do this by acting out in class and seeking attention in negative ways. A trained professional will be able to determine if there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed and how to move forward.
“We are preparing our students for life and in order for them to make the most of their intellectual strengths and their education, they have to be as healthy as they can possibly be…both mentally and physically,” said President Paula Johnson of Wellesley College.
Gregory L. Fenves, President at the University of Texas at Austin, said “For students to be successful in academics and in life beyond college, mental health is just as important as physical health. It touches every aspect of life and affects us all.”
Mental Health as a Collaborative Opportunity
Mental health training teaches all school staff, including teachers, counselors, and psychologists, to work together to address mental health challenges. “If you have everyone trained and take an ‘it takes a village’ approach, you can do a lot of preventative measures to reduce the risk significantly,” says Aiken.
What Training Covers
Student mental health training and certification is available to schools who are ready to establish themselves as leaders in mental health and who want to address the silent pandemic sweeping the nation.
Nine areas of mental health competency are covered including:
- IEP and Program Development
- Oppositional Defiance Disorder
- Behavior Modifications
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Traumatic Brain Injury
Students need schools that are committed to their mental well-being, but teachers need this just as much. The training provides schools with best practices and the confidence to carry them out while changing the lives of their students.
Learn more about mental health training for teachers here.
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