Mental Health in Schools: A Crisis Affecting Millions of Students Every Day

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One of the biggest challenges teachers are up against. Our schools need more help.

student mental health

This past week, I lost count of the amount of hours I tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep because my mind was racing. Was I worried about my upcoming observation, the massive amounts of paperwork I was swimming in, or countless ungraded papers? Not in the least. Instead, I was worried about two students who had expressed thoughts of suicide within days of each other. The kicker of the whole situation? THEY ARE ELEVEN YEARS OLD.

Unfortunately, the above is not a rare situation in today’s day and age. According to Johns Hopkins Health Review, the odds of teenagers suffering from depression grew an astonishing 37 percent from 2005 to 2014.  It’s estimated that three million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 have had a major depressive episode in the past year alone. The chances are high that at least one of those kids is in your class.

So how do these alarming statistics affect us as teachers? How do we, as educators, support these students who either turn to us in times of need or demonstrate tell-tale signs that something about their emotional health is very off? As the number of students with mental health issues continues to rise, teachers need to be more equipped with tools on how to handle those in need. Teaching the curriculum? Easy. Confidentially aiding a student who is experiencing suicidal ideations? Not so easy. Below are some things schools should put in place to combat these alarming statistics. 

1. Every school should have a counselor on site. 

Research done by the American School Counselor Association suggests that roughly twenty percent of all students need some type of mental health services, but only one in five ends up receiving any.  This problem can be combated by hiring at least one counselor for every school site, in order to actively address students’ mental and emotional health on a day-to-day basis. While this might be costly for most school districts, it is a necessary expense in addressing the needs of our student population. These counselors must work in conjunction with teachers to flag students of concern, start a dialogue with parents, and offer services that might best support a child. It’s not surprising that the issue of counselors was one of the main points of teachers participating in the most recent LAUSD strike, right alonside better pay.

school counselor advisory program_ teen mental health

2. Advisory programs should be implemented in middle and high schools across the nation. 

I will be the first to admit that I am biased in regards to advisory programs. My school started an advisory program two years ago and I have witnessed the positive effects it has yielded for our parent, student, and teacher community. In these programs, teachers serve as school “parents” who are responsible for a certain number of students academically, behaviorally, and emotionally. Personally, I am in charge of eleven 6th Grade boys for the length of a school year. Grades are dropping? I contact the parent. The child has a personal problem? He comes and speaks to me. The student’s behavior in class is less than acceptable? I’m in charge of pulling him aside and talking to him. While this seems like a lot of work (and trust me, it is), it actually PREVENTS problems from snowballing on a daily basis. I can’t tell you the amount of eating disorders, bullying, and anxiety episodes we have been alerted to because of this program. But don’t just take my word for it. Research shows that those in an advisory program reported greater adjustment, achievement, and engagement in school. If we want to build a community where students are seen and trusted by adults, this is a great first step.

tired student_mental health

3. Schools should work with educating the parents AND students regarding mental health and its triggers.

Have you ever talked to the parent of a teenager? If you have, you will know that they, too, have no idea what to do with the alien that has taken over the body of their once sweet, innocent child. Educating the whole student is a three-prong approach – meaning the parent, teacher, and child must work together for s/he to succeed both inside and outside the classroom. If we want to partner with parents, we must work to educate them on the warning signs of depression or anxiety, as well as what they can do if they notice any of these red flags. Too often, educators and parents become adversaries when we really need to be comrades in battle. Through various speakers, events, and communication, parents can begin to understand the ever-increasing difficulties their child faces in our current day and age.

parents and teacher meeting_teen depression mental health

Teachers do their best to educate, mediate, coach, nurse, motivate, referee, and mentor every kid that steps in their classroom, but teachers are only human. There’s only so much we can successfully handle. Class sizes rise year after year, responsibilities accumulate, paperwork piles higher, and extensive meeting hours demand more from teachers than they can manage, both physically and emotionally. We need help to make sure no child gets overlooked. We need professional help in our schools by having enough counselors, and we need help from parents at home. Our students deserve more, we can all do better.


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Abigail Courter is a fifth year music teacher at a K-8 private school in California.  She has taught general music, band, music technology, and performing arts.

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