Trigger Warning: This article includes information about mental illness and discusses topics such as depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and suicide.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to recognize, support, and uplift the needs of the millions of Americans living with mental health conditions. As a school district leader, May is a time to learn about the mental health challenges facing school-aged children and put together a communication plan to ensure parents and students know what school resources are available to diagnose and treat mental health issues. This May, commit to strengthening your ability to advocate for students living with a mental health condition and enable faculty and staff to do the same—because it takes all of us to protect and care for the next generation of leaders.
Understanding the Types of Mental Illness Impacting Our Youth
The definition of mental illness includes a wide range of conditions that affect mood, behavior, and thinking. Mental health issues can impact anyone, even those within the walls of our schools. Some of the specific health conditions included in the category of mental illness include:
- Clinical depression – A persistent depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life
- Anxiety disorder – Feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activities
- Bipolar disorder – Episodes of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs
- Eating Disorders – Any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, orthorexia, muscle dysmorphia, binge eating disorder (BED), compulsive overeating (COE), diabulimia, drunkorexia, and pregorexia
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – A chronic condition including attention difficulty, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness
- Schizophrenia – A disorder that affects a person’s ability to think, feel, and behave clearly
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder – Excessive thoughts or obsessions that lead to repetitive behaviors or compulsions
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event
Aside from parents and friends, teachers and school staff may spend the most time with children and adolescents, making them critical allies in the battle to recognize and address signs of an undiagnosed mental illness. Particularly when it comes to depression in students, teachers, staff, and administrators should look for the most common symptoms. While not always visible or notable in the classroom, common signs of depression in adolescents include:
- Sadness or crying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Reckless behavior
- Extreme weight loss or gain
- Upset stomach
- Low self-esteem
- Sudden anger
- Frequent classroom absences
- Suicidal ideation
Creating a Training and Education Action Plan
As a school leader, a critical responsibility that you must tackle in the quest to recognize and support students living with a mental health disorder is to ensure adequate training for all faculty and staff and ensure the availability of reputable resources for staff, parents and guardians, and students. Commit to sharing resources, education, and training materials to faculty and staff to help them identify age-relevant signs of mental health in students in your district.
Further, share resources or provide training that will give teachers and staff the confidence to reach out to parents to initiate conversations about a child if they are concerned—especially if it is related to a possible depressive condition. Such conversations are not easy or comfortable, so providing staff with actionable training will be crucial in enabling them to act on their observations.
Finally, provide local, regional, and national resources to support students and their families who may be navigating a known or newly diagnosed mental health diagnosis.
Resources About Mental Health in Adolescents
The best thing that a faculty or staff member can do for a student who has a mental illness is quickly and proactively work with the child’s parents or guardians to seek reputable, professional care and treatment. Available adolescent mental health resources include:
- The National Adolescent and Young Adult Health Information Center
- The National Institute of Mental Health
- United Advocates for Children and Families (UACF)
- UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools
- University of Maryland Center for School Mental Health
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA)
- Teen & Youth Help Hotline
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- The Trevor Project for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth
- The Crisis Text Line
- The Trans Lifeline
Recognizing and Supporting Students Living with Mental Illness
This May, commit to fostering a culture in your school that understands and supports students living with mental illness. For too many years, young adults have hesitated to share their feelings out of fear of the stigma that accompanied mental illness conditions. As we move forward in a time where we are all more enlightened about the realities of mental illness, be a leader in advocating for awareness and support for those living with a mental health disorder. You, your students, and your district as a whole will be a better, safer, and more inclusive environment for having embraced every student, regardless of the challenges they may face.