School Health and Wellness//
February 12, 2023
Has the educator's role ever been limited to teaching? From the early days of kindergarten to the senior year of high school, the unofficial job description of a teacher often extends to nurse, parent, confidant, and mentor.
Developing a trusting relationship with students is a coveted goal. If a child feels comfortable approaching their teacher with a problem or concern, they’re more apt to seek and find a resolution.
Does that same rule apply when mental illness is the issue at hand?
Understanding Mental Health vs. Mental Illness
Mental health isn’t linear—it varies from person to person, and from day to day. Some children face challenges head-on, handling everything with ease and efficiency. The next week, that same child might feel stuck in their emotions or reactions, taking longer than usual to solve a problem or complete a task.
And sometimes, the distress goes deeper. When thoughts and emotions are so strong that a student is consistently unable to go about their daily routine and activities, it is time to intervene.
Only a mental health professional can diagnose and work with a young child or adolescent with mood disorders, ranging from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder.
But what part, if any, does the school play in helping a child manage their mental illness?
Tune in to live webinars every week during the school year to get specific, research-backed insight you can immediately apply at your school.
Partnering With Students
Collaboration among the student’s entire support network can help them thrive, even in the face of a mental health diagnosis. Ideally, this network includes parents, teachers, administrators, mental health professionals, and the child.
The most important thing a teacher or administrator can do is pay attention. Are there early signs a child is struggling? For younger children, that struggle often manifests in crying or acting out. For teenagers and adolescents, the signs are more subtle, including extreme fatigue and anti-social or high-risk behaviors.
Open the Door
A student spends an average of 30 to 40 hours per week in school. Teachers, staff members, and administrators serve as de facto guardians for most of the day. It's difficult to talk to a child who is dealing with depression or another mental illness, but it is doable. Where can you start?
- Recognize it. Identifying the severity and longevity of a new behavior is key to understanding the difference between a bad day and a true problem.
- Talk about it. Negative thoughts are swirling in the head of a teenager with depression. Initiate conversations with open-ended questions. Once a student shares their feelings, the reality of a situation may not appear as awful as they’d imagined.
- Normalize it. Banish the mental illness stigma. If a child starts limping, a teacher instinctively asks them what happened. If a child seems “off,” a teacher should ask that same question.
Find Calm in the Moment
Depression is one of the most common mood disorders mental health professionals currently see in older children and adolescents. Several diagnoses fall under this category. Lack of interest in activities, low energy, and low self-esteem are all signs a child may be depressed.
An educator’s job is to support students, not diagnose them. But when a teacher senses a student may be struggling—either from observation or having learned of a diagnosis from a school counselor—providing self-calming options can temporarily shift the narrative:
- Quiet space: Offer a safe place where a student can go during the school day to get out of the moment.
- Movement: Encourage the child to take a walk or do some yoga stretches.
- Activity: Invite the student to engage in a simple, calming activity—such as coloring, deep breathing, or drinking a glass of water.
If you see signs that a student is in a dangerous state of stress, reach out to a mental health professional immediately and stay with the child until help arrives. A child in distress should not be left alone.
ISM's Wellness in Independent Secondary Education (WISE) provides students in grades 9–12 access to mental health professionals 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through a custom phone app. Students can connect with professionals by calling or texting—the response is almost instantaneous.
Your students will experience secure, confidential, single-sign-on access to all their health care providers, affording those providers an exceptional ability to coordinate your student’s care. Plus, parents have a dedicated portal so they can actively participate in the care of their children.
WISE is tailored to your school’s unique needs—and complementary to your existing resources. Our goal is to empower your administrators, counseling services, and faculty members to provide the best support possible for your students.
For more information about WISE visit our webpage.
Depression is definitively isolating, but treating it doesn’t have to be. As a teacher or administrator, you cannot—and should not—attempt to diagnose a student’s mental illness. Instead, become an active member of their support network.
Work with students and empower them to take positive steps in their treatment. Work with parents and professionals; share your observations from the school day to provide a fuller picture of a student’s mental health status. The stronger a child’s support system is, the better chance they have of a positive outcome.
*Content courtesy of D&G Wellness.