Great strides are being made to destigmatize mental health, but an increased awareness has also exposed the widespread problem that issues with mental health are highly common in adolescents. According to the World Health Organization, most mental conditions take root by the age of 14 and many still go undiagnosed and untreated. While greater measures are being taken to destigmatize youth mental health and instigate conversation about general mental health, youth suicide still continues to increase at a faster rate than all other age groups.
Educators certainly can’t be held responsible for students in this younger age group who fall through the cracks; they can, however, strive to identify kids at risk, create a positive, inclusive learning environment and make mental health a regular topic in the classroom.
Who’s at Greatest Risk?
It’s tough to pinpoint which students are most likely to develop issues with their mental health; there are often complex genetic and environmental factors at play that can affect young students.
A family history of depression, anxiety, addiction or other issues put kids at significant risk; longing for acceptance is still a huge source of stress — the tension between desiring independence and feeling excluded is very real; exploring sexuality has never been easy; bullies and discriminators have taken to social media, so their impact is public and far-reaching.
Troubled kids are notoriously reluctant to seek help, but teachers and professors can subtly intervene if they know what to look for.
Spotting Signs of Poor Mental Health
Given how “moody” and temperamental kids can seem while dealing with the hardships of puberty, it’s easy for parents, teachers and peers to dismiss any warning signs as being part of the teenager phase.
The difference between going through phases of puberty and showing signs of poor mental health can be a fine line. Almost every young person goes through periods of anxiety, depression, loneliness, disappointment, self-loathing or anger. Most students rebound eventually and return to their “normal” state. Typically, they develop the coping skills necessary to work through their negative emotions in healthy ways, and come to understand that most of what they are feeling is a result of their hormones.
When speaking about poor mental health, we are talking about students who don’t know how to process those feelings and can’t see past their immediate circumstances or fathom a positive outcome.
At home, kids can slam their bedroom doors and hole up for hours unobserved, but hiding their emotions isn’t possible in the classroom. In some ways, then, educators are in a better position to spot the red flags of poor mental health in students. These can include:
- Declining grades or loss of interest in academics
- Seeming abnormally tired, angry, anxious or sad
- Uncharacteristic lack of participation in discussions or activities
- Angry outbursts or uncharacteristically bad behavior
- Avoidance of friends or family members
- Evidence of substance abuse
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
Creating an Environment That Promotes Mental Wellness
Educators at all levels have the ability to positively impact student mental health by tweaking their teaching strategies and working to actively engage the students in their classroom. We’ve compiled some of the best ways teachers can stay proactive and promote student mental wellness:
1. Stay On Top of Events in Students’ Lives
All sorts of things can trigger a turn for the worse in terms of a student’s mental wellness.
Tension at home, a serious injury, violence, poverty or even a household move might contribute to poor mental health; the loss of a parent through divorce or death can be devastating; even mild acne or an unreciprocated crush can send at-risk students into a tailspin of negative emotions.
Every student should feel comfortable approaching a trusted teacher when they’re dealing with such issues, but the reality is that few do. Even teachers who create a caring, supportive environment usually have to make the first move.
Teachers who are told information or who overhear certain rumors should be quick to follow up with the students involved to make sure they are coping well and have a responsible, trustworthy adult to turn to.
2. Avoid Stigmatizing Mental Illness Through Language
It’s easy to stigmatize mental illnesses without meaning to. Many terms that people still use today are either grossly inaccurate or deeply offensive.
Teachers are often a main role model for young students and it’s important to be aware of language that can directly or inadvertently stigmatize a state of poor mental health or a type of mental illness. Students will catch on if their teachers are modelling positive language and feel much more comfortable seeking guidance if they themselves are dealing with negative emotions.
Stay cognizant of the language you are using in front of impressionable young students and remain aware of the terms and phrases that are considered appropriate and respectful. For example, explaining that someone “lives with a mental illness” is much more preferable to saying they “suffer from mental illness” or are a “victim of mental illness”, as plenty of people with mental diagnoses live happy, fulfilling lives.
This kind of positive reinforcement will reassure students that what they are feeling isn’t unnatural or something to be ashamed about. This in turn will make them more comfortable sharing their emotions or even seeking out professional help.
3. Practice Inclusive Teaching in a Safe, Engaging Learning Environment
Inclusive teaching practices are aimed at making everyone in the classroom feel safe and valued and work to address the needs of students with diverse backgrounds, learning preferences and abilities.
There will always be natural tension between certain student groups due to the fact that young people simply haven’t yet matured and lack certain experiences. Great teachers anticipate this and guide kids through peaceful conflict resolution by setting certain standards of respect and inclusivity in the classroom.
Something as simple as introducing a group desk arrangement to inspire teamwork goes a long way to spark interest, encourage participation and make everyone feel included.
4. Make Resources Readily Available
For a young student dealing with poor mental health, it is easy to feel isolated and alone in their struggle. It’s important as a teacher to make yourself readily available and recognized as a trustworthy adult figure students can turn to for help and guidance. Be sure to check in on your students and consider holding daily office hours where they can anonymously seek help from a caring adult.
That being said, not every student is going to feel comfortable seeking advice or comfort from their teacher. Make sure students are fully aware of all of the different resources available to them that can help to improve their mental wellbeing — whether that be the number of a health professional, a list of the best ways you can improve your mental health or the available hours of the school guidance counsellor.
5. Emphasize the Importance of a Work-Life Balance
Some well-meaning parents make their children feel as though their worth comes from their grades, their class ranking and the awards and scholarships they receive. While there is certainly a place for ambition, there is equal value in maintaining a work-life balance and finding time to wind down or participate in sports, arts programs and other general hobbies.
In order for students to learn the many benefits, teachers should do their best to model the same mentality of prioritizing this balance.
Consider the benefits of periodically closing the books and inviting freestyle discussion into the classroom where students talk openly about their hobbies, interests and even their weekend plans. This will not only demonstrate to your students that you value them as individuals, it’s also a great way to get some greater insight into their lives at home and perhaps gain an explanation for their in-class behaviours.
6. Schedule Time for Group Exercise
For decades, studies have shown that physical health can have a great bearing on a persons’ mental well-being. Teachers who build in brief blocks of time for light exercise such as walking around the schoolyard or dancing in the classroom will boost their students’ energy levels and engagement. This will not only work to improve their state of mental wellbeing, but it will also help them to stay focused on the lessons at hand and perhaps improve their school performance.
The classroom is an ideal venue for equipping kids to lead happy, healthy lives as adults. Consider these top tips for a great way to start promoting student mental health in the classroom.