Blog: The Educated Reporter

Schools Increasing Focus on Student Mental Health

More students are walking into classrooms with high stress levels than in previous generations, but a few innovative schools are helping kids cope with these challenges and succeed academically.

For students who have experienced trauma at home, nothing replaces a caring adult at school, said Bill Bond, the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ specialist for school safety. And teachers the most likely to provide counseling at school, said Bond during an EWA National Seminar panel discussion on student mental health.

“Our teachers don’t feel fully equipped to handle the level of severity of stress and challenges that young people are bringing to our classrooms every day.” Bond told the EWA audience at Vanderbilt University in Nashville last month, adding that may be the reason many teachers don’t last longer than five years in the classroom.

Though schools have financial and staffing limitations, many campuses have found creative ways to deliver mental health services to students, said Olga Acosta Price, an associate professor in the department of prevention and community health at George Washington University. Every student should feel there’s at least one adult on their campus who knows them well, she said. Those adults should be alert to whether students are deviating from their normal behavior, such as sleeping in class or coming to school late. In rare cases, these signs could indicate a student is thinking about hurting themselves or others.

“There are always warning signs,” said Price, director of GW’s Center for Health and Health Care in Schools.  “They may be hard to find, but they’re there.”

Journalists should realize mental health issues extend beyond depression and suicide prevention, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Sources of stress could include social isolation for first-generation college students, the risk of sexual assault on campuses and police surveillance of Muslim students.

“These are all part of the mental health equation and we are doing a big disservice if we isolate mental health into crisis counseling,” he said.

Like adults, students with strong social connections tend to do better than those who don’t, Shapiro said.

“We now know quite definitively that the single most important predictor of resilience in the face of traumatic events  – it’s peer support and social connectedness,” Shapiro said.

But for school workers, helping each student forge strong friendships with their peers is a challenge. Bond, who was principal of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., in 1997, when a student shot and killed three students and injured five others. He said he remembered another student who complained about being bullied. In the teenager’s eyes, the problem wasn’t so much that a small group was harassing him. The bigger issue, he felt, was that none of his peers defended him.

“I can help with (providing) the caring adults,” Bond said. “I have a harder time controlling their peer group.”

A few schools are stepping up to help stressed-out students succeed. Freelance writer Laura Tillman spoke about the students at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Wash. The alternative school serves students who had behavioral problems at other schools. But the students at the Lincoln also had something else in common, Tillman said.

“It’s a school not for kids that are doing poorly in school, but a school for kids that have a lot of trauma and stress in their lives,” said Tillman, who wrote about the school for the Pacific Standard magazine last year.

Lincoln used insight about the biology of teenagers under stress to help guide its programs, establishing a clinic at the school where students can receive free medical services and counseling. Students also learn skills like self-regulation and impulse control in addition to traditional academic subjects.

“Their brain is flooded with cortisol and they can’t learn,” Tillman said about the students with chaotic home lives. “You can’t progress with a student until they deal with the emotional issues in their lives.”

She added that there are many other schools across the country exploring the best ways to meet students’ needs. 

 “This is a real moment of experimentation of how mental health works in schools,” Tillman said. 


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