The earlier schools can detect concerning behaviors, the better positioned they will be to address youth mental health challenges.

3 ways schools can support youth mental health

The earlier schools can detect concerning behaviors, the better positioned they will be to prevent the escalation of troubling behaviors

The collective damage caused by the pandemic has yet to be fully understood, but the toll it has taken on youth mental health and emotional well-being is becoming exceedingly apparent. Widespread social isolation and loneliness, uncertainty, parental loss of a job, the widening digital divide, feelings of anxiety over becoming ill, and loss of a loved one have all contributed to the current mental health crisis.

In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, and the U.S. Surgeon General released a public health advisory stating that young people’s rates of experiencing symptoms of depression more than doubled during the pandemic.

While student mental health is the top safety concern of K-12 employees for the 2022-2023 school year, a recent survey on teen mental health and well-being reported that teens are particularly concerned that their schools aren’t doing enough to support them and their emotional needs–only a few surveyed have the highest confidence in their schools’ efforts to create an atmosphere of physical (17.2 percent) and emotional (12.5 percent) safety.

The earlier schools can detect concerning behaviors—and address them and properly intervene–the better positioned they will be to prevent the escalation of troubling behaviors and violence. Students whose mental health needs go unmanaged, whether by the stigmas associated with seeking help or a lack of resources, are more likely to commit acts of self-harm or violence.

Problematic even prior to the pandemic, acts of violence against teachers, administrators, and other school personnel are at an all-time high–a recent study revealed that one-third of surveyed teachers reported they experienced at least one incident of verbal and/or threatening violence from students during COVID (verbal threats, cyber bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment), and school staff (paraprofessionals, school counselors, instructional aides, school resource officers) reported the highest rates of student physical violence, with 22 percent of staff reporting at least one incident of physical violence during COVID.

This growing crisis is putting more pressure than ever on school leaders to respond and protect students before issues escalate. Here are three ways educators can manage this mental health epidemic and work to reduce acts of self-harm and violence in schools:

  1. Behavioral threat assessment and suicide prevention training is a necessity when it comes to managing mental health and helping students move off a path of violence to themselves or others. The most effective behavioral threat assessments involve a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach using scientific methodology to determine the severity of threats and plan intervention to support and protect potential victims and offenders. The ability to identify whether a student poses a threat of violence, and if they have the intent and means to carry out that threat, is something that can be achieved with proper training. It is imperative that school leaders truly understand what threat assessment is, and everyone on the multidisciplinary threat assessment team receives proper and ongoing training. Ongoing training on an annual basis is especially important to reduce liability and increase standard of care, as it ensures consistency with new employees as well as provides crucial “refresher training” for existing employees.
  1. Enhance teacher and parent collaboration. Family engagement has always been a critical tool for managing students’ well-being; everyone benefits when schools effectively partner with families and caregivers. Some key recommendations from a COVID-19 school response toolkit published by TNTP suggest the following for developing effective teacher/parent collaboration during this challenging time: Starting a dialogue with families, caregivers, and community partners right away, while plans are still being developed and before any decisions have been made; sharing information transparently with families, caregivers, and community partners; and developing a comprehensive plan for connecting with students and families who have not been easy to reach–if possible, working with community organizations or school and school system staff to contact high-need families and those where students have had poor attendance. More than ever, making parents and caregivers a key part of students’ mental health support plan is a crucial tool for success.
  1. Prioritize staff wellness. Teachers are among the group whose mental health has been most compromised by the pandemic–84 percent of teachers reported that teaching, an already stressful profession, was made even more stressful over the past two years. Educators are considered essential workers, expected to report to work despite the health risks and potential exposure to COVID. For both teachers and administrators, the pandemic has brought with it longer work hours, the demand to quickly adapt to new and unfamiliar technology, and a requirement to completely reinvent classroom teaching strategies to accommodate a virtual platform. A recent article recommends several ways school districts can support teachers’ mental health, including: Talking openly about mental health issues, training the team to recognize early signs of mental health issues, creating virtual groups and call lines and building a culture of check ins. Another report from the American Psychological Association recommends implementing programs that include professional development training and support for self-care, coping with stress, and mentoring. The better supported our school personnel, the more effectively they will be able to meet the ongoing and ever-changing emotional needs of students.

Supporting students’ mental health has always been a challenging task, made even more so by the pandemic. It’s more important than ever that it becomes a top priority for administrators, and with a team approach to proper and ongoing training, we can do our best to keep schools safe.

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