Reducing the Mental Health Crisis in Schools

Mental health is still something that people don’t like to address. But for those who are suffering from poor mental health, it’s clear that something needs to be done to help them. The mental health crisis in schools is rising, with 10-20% of children and adolescents experiencing mental disorders; with half of those beginning at age 14. Varying by the child and their personal experiences, the help you are giving them will depend on the concerns they are facing.

The increase in the crisis may be due to a number of factors. Firstly, a 21st Century concern of many adults is the exposure that their children are having to social media. Scrolling through social media applications can be an extremely damaging pastime for many reasons. One recurring theme is the number of articles, images and videos portraying what people should look like in order to be beautiful. This pressure on children and adolescents into young adult around body image can lead to eating disorders, issues with social interaction and depression through issues such as cyberbullying.

Social media isn’t the only reason that the mental health crisis faced by children is increasing, however. Other factors, such as a traumatic event (for example, losing a loved one) or even financial hardship or domestic violence and neglect can cause our young people (as it would those of all ages) to act out of their emotional pain and distress.

When 13 Reasons Why was released in 2017, many children and adolescents tuned in to watch. The plot of the Netflix television series was extremely dark (about a young girl who commits suicide and leaves a series of tapes to those who caused her to kill herself) and has been targeted as the reason why the suicide rates amongst youths have risen. Suicidal thoughts and self-harm are often associated with poor mental health. And when children start thinking this way, whether it be because of a trauma in the family or because of the pressures they feel in daily life, helping school staff address mental health in schools is essential.

When it comes for children to go to school, these issues can be heightened by the pressure of homework, exams, etc. Bottling up these emotions are undeniably damaging, therefore, teachers and school staff can act as a point of contact or “Accidental Counsellor”.  Clearly a member of school staff providing emotional support to a young person who is distressed is not providing clinical counsellor or therapy. Nonetheless, knowing and understanding basic counselling skills such as listening and responding with empathy, solution focused language patterns and others is extremely useful in these situations.

If a child comes to you with an issue or you recognise that they are not themselves, the first thing you could do is simply ask if they are ok. Sometimes their non verbal communication clearly communicates that they are upset – asking them “what they need most or what would be most helpful – right now” is a useful question.

You aren’t a counsellor or a mental health expert (although you may feel like an accidental counsellor), listening to what they have to say is a basic human response to people seeking support. Everyone needs help from time to time, and the pressure they feel may be overwhelming and isolating. Having a trusted person who provides space to listen to the person’s pain is often the most powerful thing we can do.

There are a number of strategies implemented worldwide to reduce the mental health crisis in schools. From reducing classroom stress by taking off the pressure of deadlines, to working with the children’s parents, there are simple ways to ensure that your students feel less stressed. Tools such as the PAX Good Behaviour Game (it uses an array of strategies to assist students in learning and discovering self-management skills, whilst you implement a productive yet relaxed environment for them to learn in) or the Raising Healthy Children Program (that aims to create positive youth development by reducing the chance of them taking drugs, delinquency and failing in school) can be utilised.

Early prevention is extremely valuable when it comes to mental health. And health education has become a primary concern of many schools. Detecting the signs of mental illness in children can initially seem difficult, but ensuring that it is tackled before it’s too late is undeniably important. Children spend so much of their lives at school, therefore they need to know that the staff care about them.

Another way of engaging students is by offering more creative subjects or activities throughout your lessons. Making a subject interesting not only helps with the thought process and productivity but can prove to be helpful when it comes to exam time. Memory games, quizzes and other fun activities will make the information stick and lessen the pressure they feel to memorise it. These types of activities will also help with social interaction, getting everyone involved and making the learning environment a more enjoyable place for them.

Setting up clubs and societies is also a great way of helping the students thrive emotionally. Giving them much-needed space and enriching their time at school, they can focus on what they are passionate about whilst still completing their education.  

The mental health crisis in schools will inevitably continue to rise if we don’t help to reduce it. It is easy enough to not think about how the children are feeling in school and to think that mental health issues are only faced by adults. But in the present day due to a number of factors such as social media and the pressure put on them (whether it be because of deadlines, friendship and relationships including with parents), many children are falling into depression, having suicidal thoughts and developing mental health issues. For teachers and school staff, are often called to perform many roles including “counsellor or coach, parent, teacher etc,. No-one expects them to be fully-trained in mental health or to know all of the answers. However, if there is only one step they can take to help to improve the crisis when in the learning environment (e.g. talking to the students, implementing advisory programs or introducing creative activities in class), it is one worth taking for the sake of the children who are suffering.

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