Mental Health Matters: Why Schools Can’t Afford to Ignore Staff and Student Needs

With education reform being the buzz term of the decade, there has been lots of talk about how we can make schools better. New instructional methods, increasing technology, longer days, more differentiation. All great ideas, of course, but none take into account the enormous pink elephant in the room.

You can’t teach kids that you can’t reach, and children who come into the classroom with mental health needs require different tools in which teachers are not routinely being equipped with.  This is creating school buildings where the teachers and students end the day feeling like refugees, having engaged in a war none of them is equipped to win.

The NPR calls it the silent epidemic, referring to the 20% of students who come into the classroom each day with a diagnosable mental illness. With the large numbers of students I’ve personally seen diagnosed with ADHD or even PTSD, I tend to consider that stat a little on the conservative side, but even as it stands if one in five children in a classroom of 30 have needs that go untreated, how much learning can really occur?

Beyond the needs that walk into the classroom, there are the needs that develop in the classroom.  Staff and students who are impacted by witnessing or experiencing the outward expressions of the internal turmoil caused by the child with ADHD who “picks” fights to stimulate his brain or the student with ODD who makes the class late to lunch every day by disrupting the walk through the halls. Or what about that teacher whose anxiety over test scores and job performance has begun to creep into every area of her life? Are the kids who are being taught by the shell of her best self which walks in the door actually going to be getting all the instruction they need?

Mental health care in this country has never been what the experts would want to see.  Working from the deficit model that says you should be experiencing a problem before you seek support and even then you’ve got exactly 10 sessions to fix it leaves much to be desired. But in schools, it’s much worse.  The one or two professional counselors, social workers or psychologists that work in the school typically cover all 800-2000 students by themselves, which means only the highest needs get addressed. This is leaving staff and students vulnerable and schools must stop ignoring the need.

Here’s what we must begin:

School-wide mental wellness.

Why do teachers have sick days and not well days? When I train educators on working with students who are at-risk of academic failure, I encourage them to take a mental health day periodically in order to stay fresh and avoid burnout.  Many respond by saying they are penalized on their annual reviews for using these days.  Huh? How can having a teacher who doesn’t want to be in the classroom benefit anyone? Schools should encourage self-care and stress management, including planned time off.  Recent research has also shown that schools who include mindfulness practices also see great benefits such a decrease in staff stress levels and discipline referrals.

Proactive and Responsive Mental Wellness Supports.

When it comes to staff mental health, most employers rely on employee assistance programs.  The services historically include a few mental health sessions with a licensed professional and are seen as the primary source of defense for staff who are facing a crisis.  But with as little as 5% of staff actually using the services, the full benefits of this resource has yet to be seen.

Some research has concluded anything from lack of awareness to the negative stigma of mental illness contributes to low usage rates, so what if employers encouraged or even required at least one visit per year? That way, needs are identified sooner and the stigma is reduced. I’ve worked in schools that rewarded me for taking a physical exam or even paid a bonus for lowering my blood pressure or cholesterol, could the same be done with mental wellness? Of course, it could.  Staff who are more mentally well can have no adverse effects on student outcomes and it’s worth exploring how it can be used to improve them.

Reading, Writing and Mental Wellness for all.

For students, many schools have begun contracting with outside mental health offices to provide school-based services.  While these relationships do benefit some students, the vast majority of kids are remaining overlooked. One of the best solutions is decreasing the student to counselor/social worker ratio. While national organizations continue to encourage rates close to 250 to 1, most schools still come in much closer to 400+ students for each professional trained in mental health needs.  The best solution, however, is making sure that all staff are clearly trained to understand, recognize and respond to mental health needs that present themselves in the classroom.

There’s no magic bullet for eliminating mental health needs, but with the right tools and consistent effort, all staff and students will get the support they need.

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Calvalyn Day

Calvalyn Day is a licensed school counselor in the state of Indiana and a practicing family coach. She has worked in and around schools for over 15 years and has trained thousands of educators and youth care workers on working with at-risk students and engaging all families. View all posts by Calvalyn Day

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