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  • Writer's pictureJohn Reilly

After Over a Year of Disruption: How Can Schools Help With Student Mental Health Issues?

Schools are ground zero for identifying student mental health issues. That’s why it’s imperative that school staff have the tools to recognize students who are in distress.

Mental health professionals, clinicians, and school counselors receive support and training through their education to learn the effective ways to intervene and provide direct counseling services to students and families.

Having more trained eyes on our students is one of the most practical ways in which we can proactively address mental health concerns before they become entrenched issues that disrupt social emotional growth and learning.

As we all prepare to reopen schools and return to a more familiar situation, many students will need help transitioning back after 18 months of disruption. Having school staff who are qualified and prepared to help with that transition, and the accompanying emotional challenges, is imperative.

School problems are warning signs of student mental health issues

Students’ emotional issues are often first revealed by problems in school. Early warning signs include:

  • Frequent absences

  • Emotional lability (mood swings)

  • Social withdrawal

  • Declining grades

  • Frequent visits to guidance or the nurse’s office

  • Bullying involvement (as the victim or the perpetrator)

  • Self-harm

  • Substance abuse

  • School refusal

Any of these signs may be indicators of emotional issues that need some level of intervention. Teachers, school counselors, and child study team members that have frequent and close contact with students can help to identify early signs of distress and refer students to the appropriate people for help.

Additionally, School staff who have access to specialized mental health training can do even more to provide meaningful interventions for student mental health issues.

How specially trained school staff can help struggling students

Although most staff are not mental health professionals or therapists, all school staff can have a therapeutic function for students. With targeted training and guidance from mental health experts, non-clinical school staff can learn not only to identify the signs of mental health issues in students, but also how to help through meaningful intervention.

Here are some ways that trained school staff can effectively support student mental health:

  1. Build relationships with students. When a student feels comfortable sharing one or more life struggles with a teacher, this can serve a therapeutic function. Encouraging students to open up is a good first step to intervention.

  2. Work with parents and families. The problems students face are complex, and overcoming them often requires the support of their families. Also, families themselves might need help and this can be the root of the student’s difficulties. School staff can learn effective ways of communicating with families and offering helpful resources when needed.

  3. Resolve student/teacher conflicts. When a teacher and student are at odds, that not only stops the learning for that student, but often impacts the other students in the classroom.. School staff with mental health training can learn effective ways to manage conflict and resolve issues to get everyone back on track.

  4. Manage school refusal. School refusal is a very damaging emotional and behavioral problem, but there are effective strategies and tools to assist in transitioning a student back into the building. With training and coaching, a skilled team can succeed in helping students return to the classroom.

  5. Reduce the burden from the most troubled students. Every school has students who demand a great deal of time and attention. Often, counselors and child study team members find themselves overburdened, and feeling guilty about not providing equitable time to their other students. Armed with the right skills and tools, specialized school staff can make great strides with those students who need the most help.

2021 is without a doubt going to be a different year. Although there are many things to celebrate, there will also be many obstacles to overcome. Students will be faced with getting back to “normal” and parents will be challenged with supporting their children in managing whatever that may look like. School staff, without a doubt, will be tasked, more than ever, with supporting the emotional wellbeing of their students. Qualified and well trained staff will be crucial in helping to successfully navigate this new normal.

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