Mental health is more prevalent now than ever before, especially two years into a pandemic. Needless to say, your students’ mental well-being can have a huge impact on the classroom. Poor mental health can affect a student’s behavior, their academic performance, and their interactions with classmates. Teachers spend the most amount of time with their students, so the onus is often most on teachers to care for their students’ emotional well-being and help them through mental health issues.
But without the right resources, there’s only so much that teachers can do. In fact, when teachers are solely responsible for the mental well-being of their entire classroom, that responsibility can have a negative impact on their own mental health. That’s why it’s important for schools to have a built-in mental health program that provides resources at several levels for struggling students as well as teachers.
School Mental Health Programs: A Look at the Data
Mental illness is not something that only adults struggle with. While adolescents have always struggled with things like anxiety and feelings of low self-worth, mental health issues have been rising in teens, according to the CDC. In 2019, 1 in 3 high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless, and 1 in 6 said they had made a suicide plan in the past.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened this by cutting students off from their normal routines and support systems. In 2021, Mental Health America found that the number of students who reported experiencing major depressive episodes had risen by 206,000 over the past year. As the CDC found:
“Building strong bonds and connecting to youth can protect their mental health. Schools and parents can create these protective relationships with students and help them grow into healthy adulthood.”
With required social distancing restricting access to these strong bonds, mental health fell. Marginalized students suffered the most when it came to mental health issues. Nearly one-half of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and one-third of students unsure of their sexuality considered suicide in 2019. Bullying, homophobia, and a feeling that they could not truly embrace their identity likely contributed to these numbers, which were far higher than those of cisgender, heterosexual students.
Additionally, the number of Black students who attempted suicide rose by 50% compared to 2009, likely influenced by the prevalence of racism in schools and a rise in reported police brutality against Black people.
The CDC found that forming strong bonds and connections, whether virtually or in person, improves mental well-being. Students who feel cared about are far less likely to fall into despair, and the same bonds that keep students from experiencing poor mental health are also shown to keep students away from drugs or violence.
The study showed that students need to feel connected to their school and family. Schools can help bring about that change by incorporating a mental health program to treat mental health issues in school and offer support to students who need it.
10 Steps to Building a Mental Health Program
Students spend a significant portion of their formative years in school. This is where they will develop some of their first significant bonds, as well as form the kind of person they want to be going into adulthood. For this reason, it’s important for schools to support students not only academically but also in their emotional well-being.
A strong mental health program at school will support teachers so that they don’t burn out when fostering good mental health in their students. It will also raise academic performance and lessen behavioral issues in schools. Here are some steps to building a good mental health program:
- Assess Your School’s Needs. There is no one-mental-health-program-fits-all solution. Your school’s mental health program should be based on the needs of the students. One way to assess your needs is to have the students fill out an anonymous survey regarding their mental and emotional well-being. You can enlist the help of a mental health professional to give you an idea of what to ask in the survey and interpret your needs based on the answers.
- Create a Clear Vision Statement. Before you start the mental health program, set a clear objective. What do you want the school mental health program to achieve? How do you want to accomplish that goal? Every part of the program should go back to that vision statement.
- Involve the Administration. Make these needs clear to the administration, with concrete evidence and the suggestions of a mental health professional. School administrations are not uncaring but can sometimes be out of touch with students’ needs or the ways that teachers are stretched thin. By providing them with solid data, you can involve them in the steps going forward.
- Make a Plan. Go back to your vision statement, and use that as the centerpiece of your brainstorming. With your objectives in mind, identify different methods that can be used to achieve those goals. Use the assessment of your school’s mental health needs to set priorities and come up with actionable steps.
- Create a Team. It takes a team to create a good school mental health program. Members should include not just teachers and administrators but also volunteers from families and members of the community. Mental health professionals are a must, as is providing helpful information to volunteers about how to handle mental health crises.
- Start Small and Flexible. Teachers can’t do it all, and if burned-out teachers attempt to help students through their mental health crises, they can end up hurting both students and themselves. Start with things like providing counseling for high-risk students, and then work with other teachers to find out what their capacity is. Your program will grow as it goes on.
- Spread the Word. Use social media, assembly meetings, and signs throughout the building to ensure that students know what mental health resources are available to them. Get the word out to the community as well, and you may find more volunteers to help.
- Perform Mental Health Training. Not everyone is equipped to handle sensitive mental health issues, but most can learn. Make sure that educators, administrators, and volunteers on your team all receive training to properly address mental health scenarios. It’s also a good idea to educate students on how to support each other in a healthy way.
- Incorporate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Social and emotional learning is all about teaching students how to manage their emotions. It isn’t about repressing emotions, as that can lead to more serious mental health issues; SEL encourages students to engage with their emotions and other students in a healthy way, thus fostering emotional well-being.
- Do Follow-ups and Reevaluate. As your school mental health program continues, your needs may change, or you may find that some methods you’ve used are more useful than others. In these cases, a little reassessment and revision of your school program will only strengthen it.