As teachers, so often it feels like we have to do it all. The backgrounds and experiences of our students vary, and we often feel like physicians trying to diagnose and treat. Teachers play many roles; parent figure, nurse, and sometimes even a counselor. Of course, teachers can’t be therapists or psychiatrists to students, and diagnosing their difficulties is out of their realm.
Still, teachers are often the first line of defense when it comes to mental health. They know their students well and can usually pick up on when something isn’t quite right. Unfortunately, mental health issues these days are on the rise. Schools are facing an increase in problems like bullying, suicide, anxiety, and depression. While a school can’t be expected to adequately address all of these issues on their own, the school plays a critical role in getting kids the help they need. So, what CAN schools do to help?
Start a Conversation: Just talking about mental health issues is a massive step in the right direction. Sometimes students and families view those with mental health issues as ‘crazy’ and imagine a homeless man walking down the street muttering to himself.
We need to broaden the definition of mental health so that our students and their families understand that depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are common and nothing to be ashamed of.
Talking about mental health issues normalizes it and helps reduce stigma. Frequently kids don’t reach out for help because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. So just having conversations about it is a start. When they hear someone else share a story that is similar to their own struggles they start to think they aren’t so strange.
Integrate Mental Health into the Curriculum: We teach our students about many areas of health and wellness. We show them the importance of a balanced diet or exercising, avoiding junk food or too much screen time. Our mental health is just as important and needs just as much attention as physical health.
“Mental illness is just as prevalent and serious as physical illness. Mental health needs to be discussed just like ‘physical.’ I believe these things should be taught at certain levels from young childhood just as is physical health and care.” – Anna M., member of The Mighty’s mental health community
What to Teach? Once we decide to integrate mental health into our curriculum, where do we start? Many of our curriculum resources, including the CIRCLES and BeCOOL series, address aspects of related to SEL and can promote positive mental health. Beyond a set curriculum, it is essential to teach kids about their feelings. They should learn healthy ways to share their feelings and learn to find safe people to share them with. Kids also need to learn coping skills.
Even simple skills such as deep breathing or guided imagery can make a big difference for a child suffering from anxiety or depression. These are skills that all kids can use, not just those with a diagnosable mental illness, so incorporating into the curriculum just make sense.
A Mentally Healthy Classroom Culture: Help students feel safe both physically and emotionally. Help students want to share their feelings and feel safe doing so. Help them build positive relationships with teachers and peers. Incorporate activities to build a feeling of classroom community.
Healthy School, Healthy Kids: You can’t give what you don’t have. In order for schools to teach kids to be mentally healthy and to support them through difficulties, the staff must be supported and mentally healthy themselves. Administrators can work to create a school culture in which teachers feel supported and heard and where the staff works together in positive ways to help kids. Supported, mentally healthy staff can help kids be mentally healthy. Reach out to your school administrators to see what resources are available to you if you’re not sure.
Teacher Training: Train teachers so they know how to integrate teaching mental health and how to have hard conversations with kids. While teachers aren’t expected to diagnose kids, they have the power to identify when students need help. Teachers can look for the warning signs that their students may be struggling. Schools can also compile resources so that they can refer their students to the help they need.
Mental health presents many challenges to schools in helping kids learn. Schools can help educate students about their mental health and identify those that need more help. Our schools hold hope for stemming the tide of the growing mental health issues in our country.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.