How can we incorporate mental health education into schools? Consider the 5 T’s.

Mental health is a critical part of students’ overall health and well-being.

Students today face a range of demands that can impact their mental health. From meeting high academic expectations to navigating the world of social media to maintaining relationships with their peers, students often have busy schedules that result in a lack of sleep and self-care. Many students are also dealing with distress, crises, and trauma in addition to typical life stressors. Mental health challenges can negatively impact all areas of functioning in students, contributing to social, emotional, behavioral, and academic problems.

Unfortunately, recent statistics indicate that student mental health is a prevalent and serious concern. According to a national survey, about 50% of youth between the ages of 13-18 experiences a mental health disorder at some point in their life. In addition, suicide is currently the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10-34 and during 1999-2016, suicide rates increased in nearly every state, including more than 30% increases in 25 states.

Schools have a unique and critical role to play in supporting student mental health and well-being in proactive, comprehensive, and collaborative ways. The just-released Advancing Comprehensive School Mental Health Systems report provides insight from national experts to help guide local, state, and national efforts in advancing comprehensive school mental health systems. While many schools are incorporating some aspect of mental health practices, currently only 3 states—Florida, New York, and Virginia—mandate mental health education for students (for grades 6-12 in Florida, K-12 in New York, and 9-10 in Virginia).

Mandated mental health curricula is one significant systematic step to address and improve student mental health and well-being at school, but what this actually looks like can vary greatly. We’ve identified 5 “T” strategies for states, districts, and schools to consider as their educators join the movement to promote and support student mental health:

T Strategy Why is this important? Helpful resources
1) TALKING about mental health Students need open and ongoing conversations to help decrease the stigma surrounding mental health. The earlier these conversations start the better, since around 50% of all mental health illness begins before the age of 14, and many cases go undetected and untreated. School-wide strategies to increase awareness, such as providing mental health and well-being tips in the morning announcements or assemblies, can go a long way in promoting productive conversations.
2) Providing appropriate TRAINING for teachers and staff Educators need training to appropriately identify and respond to signs of mental health issues. Teachers are often the first adults that students turn to in times of distress or crisis, but many report feeling unprepared to support students directly or refer out for additional services. Schools need resources to provide in-depth training and on-site mental health support services to comprehensively and effectively address student needs.
  • Ending the Silence presentations are free for students, staff, and families to learn about mental health and necessary steps to help a loved one in need (Source: The National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI)
  • School Mental Health Teachers Training Guide provides educators with an overview of the most common mental health illnesses, including key questions that educators can ask students and how to address specific issues (Source: Teen Mental Health.org)
  • Mental Health First Aid is a national program that teaches the skills necessary to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use
3) Incorporating mental health into TEACHING Mental health education can be integrated into academics and classwork in a way that doesn’t overly burden teachers. For example, a Social Studies lesson may identify and discuss mental health topics (e.g., trauma, stigma) in books that students are reading. Younger students may learn about how to identify, describe, and manage emotions, while older students may learn about and discuss social implications of different mental health issues.
4) Providing helpful TOOLS for students School counselors play a central role in providing direct services to students in need. However, the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is 482:1, nearly double the 250:1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. Without easy access to a counselor, educators might consider other mental-health building tools that can be incorporated into the school day, such as:
  • Mindfulness
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Physical exercise
  • Art (visual arts, theater, music)
  • “Break” or “Time Out” space allowing students a quiet area to manage their emotions or de-escalate
  • Introducing Mindfulness to Schools Guide to introduce mindfulness to students, classrooms, and schools (Source: Calm.com)
  • Mental health poster for students to check in about their feelings created by a teacher (download it for free here)
  • Teaching tools including practical strategies to support children’s emotions and behaviors (Source: Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation, ECMHC)
5) TAKING CARE of teachers In addition to addressing students’ mental health needs, schools also need to make sure to support educators’ mental health needs. Teachers experience high levels of daily stress, which also has a negative impact on students’ social adjustment and academic performance. Various organizational and/or individual-level programs, including workplace wellness programs, teacher mentoring, and practices like mindfulness can help.

School is the ideal place for all types of learning to occur, including mental health education that aims to destigmatize mental health issues. Helping students and staff identify warning signs, having supportive conversations, and providing a range of tools and supports that promote overall health and well-being are all important strategies. Want to learn even more about ways to support student mental health? Check out the resources below!

Other Relevant Resources

Topics: Emotional and behavioral outcomes Externalizing problems Internalizing problems

Tags: Mental Health Awareness Mental Health Education