There has been a tendency in the past to regard health as being something only physical. Regretfully, many people have suffered due to an ability to recognize a person’s mental and emotional well-being as being just as important as our physical well-being. In truth, the two are quite linked, with mental and emotional stresses even contributing to physical illness. I learned this firsthand my first 2-3 years working as a school-based SLP. Unable to withstand the pressures of the job, I struggled to sleep, fell prey to random sickness after sickness, and ended up unable to digest food to the point that I was sure there was something seriously wrong with me. In the end, it was stress alone impacting my body in such terrible ways. And it has taken years of intentional work (and a lot of failure) to get my body and mind to a place where they could work together again.
Thinking on my own struggles, as an adult with my own resources and a degree of maturity our students don’t have, it breaks my heart to think of our students struggling with their own mental and emotional health. According to the US Department of Health, 1 in 5 children will experience a mental health problem while at school. There are a variety of ways this can present itself – stress, anxiety, bullying, family issues, depression, learning disabilities, and substance abuse, with the most common being ADHD, behavior problems, anxiety, and depression. The signs of mental illness began to emerge at around 14 for most children although they typically don’t receive help until adulthood. In fact, only about half receive treatment as a child.
Students in school are well-placed to receive the help they need and the benefit is mutual. Students who receive good social-emotional and mental support achieve more academically. In fact, poor mental health has a devastating impact on graduation rates. Overall, schools that provide satisfactory support improve school climate, classroom behavior, and student engagement. For some students, this support is only available in their schools, especially those in rural communities. Surveys suggest that 15% of children aged 12-17 receive support in school while 17% saw a specialty provider.
Schools can improve the support they provide to students in several ways.
- First, school staff can learn to identify warning signs and educate students to recognize warning signs in themselves and in others. Curriculum can be developed to increase student knowledge, removing stigma and misconceptions, and increasing an atmosphere of positivity.
- Second, schools can provide information to students and families in need of outside assistance.
- Third, employing appropriate staff can ensure that students get access to services whether they are able to seek outside support or not. School psychologists are particularly well-placed due to their specialized training in child development, mental health, learning, diversity, culture, and school systems.
- Fourth, using MTSS approaches forges partnerships and collaborations that can reduce gaps, redundancy, and conflict, as well as the stress placed on their primary caregivers.
- Lastly, schools can be open to providing accommodations to students struggling with their mental and emotional health. These struggles can impact academics by inhibiting their ability to pay attention, creating physical complaints, increasing absences, struggling to complete their work, or keeping them from participating in social activities. Just like our students with learning disabilities, accommodations in the classroom can help students with these struggles. Accommodations can include flexible deadlines, deescalating techniques, pre-planning group discussions, and allowing breaks.
I think at this point it’s important to review some of the warning signs you could encounter with your students. Being consistently observant of your students’ behaviors is vital to staying on top of any mental and emotional struggles they may be having. Of course, this requires some amount of relationship building. It’s nearly impossible to observe some of these warning signs if you don’t know your students fairly well.
- Persistent sadness — two or more weeks
- Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions
- Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself
- Talking about death or suicide
- Outbursts or extreme irritability
- Out-of-control behavior that can be harmful
- Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality
- Changes in eating habits
- Loss of weight
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in academic performance
- Avoiding or missing school
Outside of observations, directly monitoring your students’ mental health using check-in systems is another way to consistently monitor your students’ well-being. The best check-in systems are ones that you can implement consistently (daily to weekly) and with your students’ comfort in mind. Students, especially those who are struggling, may wish to respond to such check-ins anonymously. Use your best judgment when choosing what kind of check-in system to use. Look below for a few ideas from teacher authors on TPT!
Looking for people to follow who specialize in areas of mental health? Check out a few of these content creators!