How would you describe your school’s mental health program? It has probably evolved over the past few years and will continue to be an important factor in student success in the future.
One of the unexpected benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an increased focus on mental health, not only for students but also for staff. The profound changes that happened during the beginning of the pandemic were challenging for teachers. They had to learn new skills and figure out how to care for their own families during school closures that forced most of them to work from home. Teachers and staff need support to be available to help their students, now more than ever.
Most schools still don’t have the funding or staffing to provide comprehensive mental health services. Many partner with community service providers, when possible, which is an advantage.
According to experts, there are strategies schools can use to bridge the gaps.
Teachers need to know how to identify signs of stress, common mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, and trauma. Not just teachers, but all staff members, from bus drivers to cafeteria workers to front office staff, must receive annual training. Adults working with children need to recognize signs and symptoms in themselves and address their own issues honestly and openly in order to support students.
Language and Cultural Awareness
Students at your school arrive with their own cultural experiences and backgrounds. Educators trained to be culturally aware are more prepared to support students based on their individual needs. While it may prove challenging, students and their families will benefit from having access to mental health services and materials in their native languages.
Creating connections is not difficult if your school environment is positive and supportive. Even students who seem like loners benefit from feeling like they are part of a school community. It’s not hard for teachers and staff to learn names and get to know students. Students should also be expected to look out for each other and make an effort to ensure everyone feels included.
Teach Students about Mental Health
Starting in Kindergarten, children should learn about both mental health and physical health. It should be taught using age-appropriate language through high school. Students will feel more supported if your school environment makes it seem normal to talk about feelings and mental health at any age.
Schools can take advantage of readily available tech tools for children and adults. There are apps for mindfulness, relaxation, and stress reduction that anyone can use. Technology also makes training readily accessible to staff on demand.
Tell the Truth about COVID
While the pandemic was a shared experience around the globe, it wasn’t the same for everyone. It has provided an opportunity to emphasize the need for coping skills, resilience, and self-care, along with increased awareness of the challenges and trauma that many families faced.
It’s likely that your school already has suicide prevention policies and plans. A robust program includes annual training for students, parents, and staff and some awareness of prevention, intervention, and postvention. It is much healthier to talk about suicide than to pretend it will never happen.
Youth Mental Health Resources for Schools
Healthy Minds, Thriving Kids Project
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Nationwide Children’s Hospital
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K-12) was created as a resource for educators who want to know how to get started and what steps to take to create a suicide prevention plan that will work for their schools and districts. It is written from my perspective as a school principal and survivor of suicide loss, not an expert in psychology or counseling. I hope that any teacher, school counselor, psychologist, principal, or district administrator can pick up this book, flip to a chapter, and easily find helpful answers to the questions they are likely to have about what schools can do to prevent suicide.