7 Ways Schools Can Help With the Teen Mental Health Crisis 


From socializing to social studies, a teen’s mental health has a profound influence on their overall health, development, memory, learning, and quality of living. But what is mental health, anyway?


Mindfulness programs are an obvious choice for ESSA grant spending, as they can substantially impact the school community’s success in other priority areas, like academics and overall student wellbeing. More than the “absence of mental disorders,” teen mental health describes their ability to think critically, identify and express thoughts and emotions, relate to teachers and peers, and experience joy. Though the term is often associated with struggle or stigma, every person is always dynamically experiencing a state of mental health that influences their general state of health and wellbeing. 


How Common Are Mental Health Issues in Teens? 


With the release of their Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has identified alarming trends in adolescent mental health issues over the last 10 years. In 2019, around 37% of high school students had experienced a persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness, with 1 in 6 youth reporting making a suicide plan in the past year, marking a 40% and 44% increase since 2009, respectively. While these trends are impacting youth of all backgrounds and experiences, students who identify as female, a gender minority, or Hispanic are particularly vulnerable to elevated mental health risks. 


In light of these pre-pandemic trends and the ways in which COVID-19 has disrupted school environments, supporting teen mental and emotional health is of particularly high importance. Students have lost access to in-person social connections, which are critical to their mental health, academic performance, and development. 


Research from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll has revealed that 46% of parents have observed signs that their teen is experiencing a new or worsening mental health condition, including negative changes to sleep patterns, aggressive behaviors, and withdrawal from family. While signs of mental health struggles increased for both female and male-identified students, parents of female-identified students observed a bigger change than parents of male-identified students (36% vs 19% for depression/sadness, and 31% vs 18% for anxiety/worry).  


The Role of Schools in Supporting Teen Mental and Emotional Health


As a teen’s main hub for learning, activities, and socializing, schools are one of the most powerful resources for teen mental and emotional health. Integrating mental health into curricula and school culture helps to decrease mental health stigmas, provide teens opportunities to seek mental health support from teachers and staff, and equip students, teachers, and staff with tools and language to understand and nurture their mental, emotional, and social wellbeing. 


7 Ways Schools Can Help With the Teen Mental Health Crisis


1. Making time for mindfulness.


Along with demonstrated benefits for alleviating depression and anxiety in adults, a growing body of research shows that mindfulness activities can help teens cope with stress, cultivate resilience, improve academic performance, and develop lifelong tools for self-regulation. Incorporating mindfulness can be as simple as taking one or two short breaks a day with one or more of Calm Classroom’s proven techniques


2. Integrating social-emotional learning into the curriculum.


Along with decreasing rates of anxiety and substance misuse, social-emotional learning (SEL) can help students develop highly beneficial social and emotional skills, such as self- and social awareness. Along with implementing  and project-based learning, curriculum can support students’ mental health by explicitly teaching the value of social-emotional skills, such as empathy, and creating opportunities for students to practice those skills, such as point-of-view exercises and reflective journaling. 


3. Building supportive environments.


From Zoom to classrooms to after-school activities, school environments can support teen mental and emotional health in multiple settings by fostering a sense of agency and belonging. Teachers, staff, and administration can help build supportive environments for all students by giving students space to share their unique personal and cultural experiences and inviting students to partner with adults to create safe, welcoming, and collaborative school environments. 


4. Linking students to mental health services.


Along with normalizing mental health through curriculum and school-wide assemblies, teachers and staff can help teens get the preventive and interventive support they need by connecting students with on-site mental health services, such as school counselors, as soon as an adult recognizes a teen may be struggling. While school-based mental health services may be the only option available in rural communities, research also demonstrates that students are more likely to seek counseling when they can do so at school. 


5. Training staff on trauma-informed practices.


With an emphasis on creating caring, positive, and supportive environments for people of all backgrounds and experiences, implementing school-wide trauma-informed practices can help both students and staff cultivate healthy coping skills, feel safe to ask for help, and develop a stronger sense of self-esteem and resilience. While trauma-informed practices are especially beneficial for those who have endured traumatic experiences, a trauma-informed environment helps all students refine their social-emotional skill set. 


6. Reviewing discipline policies to ensure equity.


Research has demonstrated that when students believe their school is a safe space with rules enforced fairly and restorative practices are chosen above exclusionary practices, discipline problems decrease. As equity is an ongoing process not a one-time project, schools can continue to foster safe and equitable school environments by cultivating a growth mindset when updating policy, evaluating data on achievement gaps and disciplinary trends and seeking, respecting, and implementing input from students and parents. 


7. Supporting staff mental health. 


A school-wide culture of mental health can only be possible when teachers, staff, and administrators are getting the support they need to balance work stresses and their individual mental health needs. Staff at schools that incorporate wellness programming, such as mindfulness, stress management, health education, and social-emotional learning, demonstrate lower absenteeism, higher job satisfaction, and a positive impact on student success and school environment. 


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