In recent years, the conversation surrounding mental health has begun to shift in the United States. Social discourse has slowly become more accepting of discussions on struggles with mental health, and the once-prominent stigma surrounding the topic has also begun to subside. We’re still learning more about the effects of mental health challenges on our well-being, however, and that is particularly true for its effects on school-age children.
2019 data from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that one in seven children (or about 166 million young adolescents) experience mental disorders. Challenges can include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, eating disorders, schizophrenia and more.
The leading edge curriculum in the Master of Science in Education – Counseling, School Counseling Track program at the University of Wisconsin Superior helps prepare professionals to adequately support the mental wellness of today’s students with specialized instruction, innovative methods and hands-on application.
Common Mental Health Issues in Schools
According to a study conducted between 2014 and 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common mental health issues reported were “anxiety disorders … followed by oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” The study suggests that at least 1 in 6 children met the criteria for such disorders, and the risk varied greatly depending on the child’s community and background. As a result, Counselors and school staff have begun to recognize not only the widespread nature of mental health struggles but also the detrimental effect that they can have on children’s abilities in the classroom.
As such, many districts and schools have attempted to take a more proactive and less reactive approach to mental wellness, wrote Tim Walker in a 2018 post for the National Education Foundation. The ideal proactive approach finds its way into the curriculum and sets the foundations for addressing mental health early. Making those lessons a regular topic of discussion can help to lessen the stigma around mental health, which can be a significant obstacle preventing students from seeking help.
What Are Some Ways That the Conversation Has Changed?
The conversation around mental health in schools has shifted in recent years, partly due to an unfortunate spate of high-profile traumatic events on school campuses during the 21st century, such as school shootings, student deaths by suicide and cyberbullying. School leaders are beginning to understand that mental health issues like depression and anxiety are not a cause of struggles but a reaction. While addressing the root of these issues is essential, students need effective coping mechanisms and accommodations to ensure their well-being. Unfortunately, many public school districts’ budgets are already limited, and creating additional programs for mental health can be a challenge.
What Skills Help to Meet These Challenges?
One of the primary ways schools address these challenges is by adopting substantive professional development for its staff members to expand social and emotional learning strategies. These programs focus on prevention as praxis, using early identification strategies and continual support. General mental health screenings can also be a way to identify these needs.
Teachers are also beginning to understand how to better accommodate students who struggle with their mental health, using simple tweaks such as flexible deadlines or break times for de-stressing, among others. The Association for Children’s Mental Health offers a list of helpful accommodations. Helping an entire school community to understand the importance of such accommodations can help to create an holistic, supportive atmosphere for students.
In some communities, schools have made it possible for their mental health programs to refer students for treatment services to other facilities. Counselors and teachers can often provide critical insight into a child’s behavior during these situations. An education professional with the training and knowledge to support students struggling with mental health will not only be an asset for the future of education, but they can also actively help youth learn to manage a healthier life.