Even prior to COVID, children and young adults were struggling with their mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.” Additionally, “50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24.”
Additionally, anxiety disorders have been rising in K-12 children since at least the 1950s. And, this is expected to continue. More troubling? “Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34.”
Regardless of age, mental health conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression can feel debilitating, frightening, and potentially life-threatening. But, the pandemic has only made matters worse. The CDC found that between March and October 2020, emergency room visits rose drastically in school-aged children and adolescents compared to the previous year.
As someone who interacts with children and young adults on almost a daily basis, teachers can play an important role in helping promote their mental health. Also, you can assist them in making sure that they get the right help.
While teachers certainly have enough on their plate and are dealing with their own struggles, there are ways for you to help your students with their mental health during these unprecedented times.
1. Learn how to address depression as a teacher.
Dr. John Kelly, a school psychologist, recommends that you become aware of the warning signs, such as:
Behavioral issues like sad mood, social withdraw, decrease in school performance, or irritability.
Cognitive changes including attention, concentration, or memory problems.
Physiological changes such as fatigue, insomnia, or poor appetite/overeating.
Dr. Kelly also recommends that you educate yourself or earn a mental health certification so that you can more easily notice these signs. Also, this will let you know how to address students suffering from mental health concerns like depression.
Other advice from Dr. Kelly includes:
“Do not be afraid to talk with students with depression about how they feel,” he writes. “In fact, saying nothing says a lot, and asking about how they feel will almost never cause harm.”
“Strategies such as punishment, sarcasm, disparagement, passive-aggression, or other negative techniques are ineffective and likely will only reinforce feelings of incompetence and low self-esteem, which may worsen the symptoms of depression,” Dr. Kelly notes.
“To the extent possible, arrange experiences so that the student can be successful and receive recognition for successes,” he advises. “Scheduling pleasant activities and providing opportunities for successful leadership are examples. It is very important that depressed students feel accepted as a part of the school and that teachers believe in their competence.”
2. Ask how they’re doing.
Even if you do not notice any signs, you should still ask all of your students how they’re doing during COVID.
“Checking in with students prior to the start of instruction is an excellent way to start,” states James J. Crist, Ph.D. “Examples of open-ended questions teachers can ask include:
How are you feeling about having school be cancelled for the rest of the year?
What are some good things about being home instead of at school?
What do you think of doing school online? How does that compare with being in school?
What things are you doing to reduce your stress?
“Inviting students to reach out to you privately if they are having issues can be very helpful,” says Dr. Crist. “Let your class know that you are available to listen and offer help if they need it. Watch for students who seem overly distant or are not participating, especially if this is a change from previous behavior.”
3. Reduce classroom stress.
Again, anxiety among children was already a concern. And, COVID has not helped. However, in your classroom, you can at least make attempts to alleviate a little bit of stress and anxiety.
For example, you can avoid rigid deadlines or lower grades for non-academic reasons, such as messy handwriting. You could also try making certain lessons more engaging and fun through gamification.
“Do not lower expectations or give unearned grades,” says Dr. Kelly. “However, educators can give more time, break assignments into smaller pieces, offer extra help in setting up schedules or study habits, provide flexibility in assignment schedules, or pair the student with others who express an interest in helping as part of a range of classroom adjustments.”
4. Reach out to parents, school psychologist, or school counselor.
Finally, if you notice a student is struggling, do not keep this to yourself. Reach out to their parents and professionals like the school counselor or psychologist. From there, you can collaborate together on how to support the student. And, most importantly, this will ensure that the child can meet with a mental health professional like a therapist.