Student Mental Health and Your Advisory Program

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Academic Leadership

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children has or has had a diagnosable mental health disorder. This may include not only autism, bipolar disorder, and ADHD, but also anxiety, social phobia, depression, and other less-apparent conditions. Unfortunately, many students have not been diagnosed and suffer in silence.

With proper intervention, including a strong advisory program, schools can make a big difference in the lives of their students when it comes to these disorders. One strategy is to train teachers to recognize those children who are struggling or coping poorly with challenges. Some warning signs may be when a student:

  • uses drugs or alcohol
  • isolates himself or herself and avoids social interactions
  • harms himself or herself, perhaps by burning or cutting
  • shows suicidal tendencies
  • always seems angry or worried
  • can’t sleep or eat
  • isn’t able to enjoy pleasurable activities
  • hurts other people or destroys property

Promoting healthy adult-student relationships and providing a student-centered advisory program can go far to ameliorate these problems. When schools address the emotional needs of their students, the students feel safe in their learning environments.

However, understand there are clear boundaries schools should note when making diagnoses, recommending treatment, and making referrals. Cases involving mental and behavioral health concerns have built-in “red light” issues. Consider the following guidelines, and then clarify when it is appropriate for an advisor to become involved.

  • Avoid offering a clinical diagnosis to an advisee or parent (e.g., “I think Christopher has ADHD.") This decision is best made and conveyed by an experienced, outside professional. Aside from lacking clinical or other requisite credentials, the school may not have all the information generated by a mental health professional’s thorough assessment (e.g., medical history, marital situations, or other family difficulties).
  • Don't prescribe treatment (e.g., “You need to see a doctor about starting Prozac.”) The best course is for the school to recommend or require evaluation and follow-up intervention by a health professional, then leave the diagnosis and treatment plan to them.
  • Refrain from allowing multiple school professionals to make a referral for care (e.g., “You should see Dr. Adams. She’s the best in dealing with this sort of thing.”) Even professionals in the same school are most likely to differ in this area. Clarify who in the school is authorized to make a referral. Ensure the advisor will be notified about the outcome of any referral involving one of his or her advisees.

All faculty members should understand who has the responsibility for making these kinds of decisions and communications. Having an on-staff professional (for example, a counselor or learning specialist) is ideal for these situations.

Additional ISM resources:
ISM's 2017 Summer Institute Workshop: Hands-on Advisory: Curriculum, Themes, and Activities
Mission-Based Advisory: A Professional Development Manual
The Source for Academic Leadership Vol. 10 No. 8 Yellow Light and Green Light Issues in Advisory
The Source for Academic Leadership Vol. 7 No. 7 Quality Advisory Sets Private Schools Apart

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 38 No. 7 The Advisory Program in 21st Century Schools
I&P Vol. 41 No. 3 10 Attributes of an ISM Model Advisory Program
I&P Vol. 41 No. 6 Marketing Your School’s Advisory Program


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