Receiving an invitation means it’s important for you to be present. Usually, it refers to a particular event, although in this case, it’s much bigger than that. Navigating through the challenges ahead requires not only your presence but your full attention and participation.
The unprecedented pandemic that seems to be slowly abating, at least in the U.S., has left a wide swath of damage in its wake. Fortunately, human nature brings us together in times of crisis, and the empathy and support we share with each other are critical for helping children and families recover and heal.
How to mitigate learning loss
School leaders and teachers are busy planning strategies for addressing learning loss that resulted from school closures. They need to make up lost time and do everything possible to help students catch up during the next school year.
Failing to consider the mental health of students and staff as they figure out what to do will set them back two steps for every step forward. Don’t worry, this isn’t another negative story about how bad things have gotten, but rather a message of hope and solutions to problems that we can fix. Let’s start by talking about mental health.
Stop the stigma!
First, we need to tackle the stigma by educating ourselves and others. Increasing awareness about mental health and mental health conditions or disorders will help start the conversations. Too many people avoid treatment or even getting evaluated for a diagnosis because they worry about what others will think of them. You wouldn’t hide a diagnosis of asthma, cancer, or a broken limb, so why minimize common illnesses like depression and anxiety?
When we learn to treat mental illness the same way we would treat any other health problem, it will start to normalize it. Talking about it helps. Ask questions. Share facts you have learned. You can be a voice for stopping the stigma just by doing those simple things.
The new normal - integrating mental health
Next, schools must integrate mental health services into the way they do business. Every school should strive to hire enough counselors, psychologists, and nurses to meet the recommended ratios. Educators may think that is an impossible dream, but it is not. While the pandemic brought us to our knees, we have a unique opportunity to use federal stimulus funds to improve our practice.
And from now on, schools have to stop reacting to mental health issues when they are at a crisis level. Instead, adopt the new buzzword, “mental health literacy,” and make it the core of academic success. We learn better with healthy brains…
A culture of caring
A culture of caring in a school provides a nurturing environment for students. It’s more than just identifying kids at risk. It’s about preventing kids from getting to the point where they are at risk.
A culture of caring starts at the top. School leaders must build a safe and supportive school community. Their job is to foster not only a positive educational environment but one that focuses on the whole child. If children feel comfortable talking about their mental health, they’ll go see the nurse or the counselor because they’re feeling depressed or anxious as easily as they would for a sore throat or headache.
We need to change from a culture that is primarily focused on identifying those students who are already struggling to one that focuses on creating an educational environment that values more than academic or athletic skills in children. Educators should be teaching problem-solving, coping skills, life skills, along with promoting and fostering tolerance.
Making mental health and social-emotional learning integral components of the curriculum, equal in importance to any subject knowledge measured on high-stakes standardized tests, will impact students’ academic progress.
In a culture of caring, everyone in the school community participates in creating a culture of respect and support, and they are comfortable seeking help for themselves or their friends. They understand that seeking help is important for their own health and to the wellbeing of the entire community.
What can you do?
If you are a school administrator, you already know. If you are in a position to influence school leaders, tell them you want them to view mental health professionals as essential workers. Ask them to invest in hiring quality staff and provide ongoing professional development that supports mental and behavioral health for students and staff. That attitude will be critical to academic success in the post-pandemic world.
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.