How to Improve Student Mental Health: 7 Strategies for K-12

The stress of being a young person has never been easy. From classwork and relationships to peer pressure and bullying, the awkward years between elementary and high school have always taken a toll on student mental health.

Indeed, America’s mental health issues aren’t anything new. So, why are educators paying so much attention to them now?

The short answer is that mental illness has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems are all on the rise — sparking a renewed interest in mindfulness, stress relief, and suicide prevention.

Of course, every school district has a part to play in reversing this dangerous trend. Not sure about yours? Read on to learn how to improve student mental health and the various strategies at your disposal.

Is there a mental health crisis in America?

By all accounts, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Let’s dig a little deeper to learn more about how mental health issues in the United States have evolved over the years.

Youth mental wellness over time

According to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, the mental wellness of today’s youth is reaching crisis levels. At the time of his 2021 advisory, Murthy reported that recent national surveys illustrated alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.

Specifically, he cited the following data as evidence:

  • A 2019 study found that 1 in 3 high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness — an overall increase of 40% from 2009.
  • Since 2009, the share of young people seriously considering suicide increased by 36% and the share that created a suicide plan increased by 44%.
  • Between 2011 and 2015, youth psychiatric visits to emergency departments for depression, anxiety, and behavioral challenges increased by 28%.
  • Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the US increased by 57%.

As a combined group, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recently declared this mental health crisis a national emergency.

Why are mental health problems on the rise?

It’s impossible to pinpoint any one factor in particular as the root cause for the nation’s ongoing mental health challenge. However, there are certainly a few common culprits:

  • COVID-19: Pandemic-related stress has had a detrimental effect on student mental health. With many adolescents experiencing loss, isolation, and other traumas during lockdown, 70% of educators reported an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services at school since the pandemic began. Even more school districts (76%) reported an increase in staff members voicing concerns about students exhibiting mental health symptoms.
  • Bullying: Toxic behaviors like bullying or cyberbullying are known to cause feelings of rejection, exclusion, isolation, low self-esteem, and may lead to the development of a serious mental health condition. According to a 2019 study, as shared by McGovern Medical School, there was a 70% leap in online hate speech in the first few months of the pandemic — an increase that only further contributed to poor mental health.
  • Violence: Over 1,000 incidents involving firearms have occurred on school grounds since 2018, raising concerns about student safety. These fears can also worsen a young person’s anxiety, making it difficult to focus on their daily activities.
  • Environmental factors: Aside from school climate, a student’s home life can also shape their mental wellness. Adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse or the loss of a loved one, may lead to the onset of a severe mental health condition.
  • Social media: In a vacuum, it’s not accurate to say social media causes poor mental health. However, it can definitely pile onto an existing problem. Studies have shown that an overactive social media presence has a direct correlation to cyberbullying victimization.

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How poor mental health impacts student well-being

Untreated mental health symptoms can grow more severe and prevalent over time, especially as stressors and other factors dynamically come and go. Whether you’re an elementary, middle, or high school student, this can ultimately impact well-being in multiple ways.

Academic performance

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center reports that mental health problems can affect a student’s energy level, concentration, dependability, and optimism, which in turn hinders academic performance. In fact, depression is often linked to lower grade point averages, and co-occurring anxiety can increase this association. Furthermore, mental illness may lead to frequent absenteeism and increases the likelihood of dropping out. By contrast, students with “good mental health” are more likely to go to class ready to learn, engage in activities, use problem-solving skills, and contribute to a positive school culture.

Physical health

Worse yet, depression and anxiety have a real, tangible impact on physical health. Depression can directly alter the body’s immune system by suppressing T Cell responses to viruses and bacteria, making it easier to get sick for extended periods of time. Educators must also be wary of behavioral changes that may occur as a result of a mental health condition.

When teens are upset, stressed, or depressed, they may turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. According to the Child Mind Institute, almost half of kids with mental health disorders will also develop a substance abuse problem. This not only makes it more difficult to treat their emotional well-being, but also puts them at greater risk of suicidal ideation.

Long-term development

Many health behaviors and habits — both good and bad — carry over into adulthood. If a young person experiences mental illness at a young age, this may last well after high school. Indeed, during the 2020-21 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health condition.

What schools can do better

Educators are front, center, and in the trenches when it comes to student wellness. It’s no surprise then that schools are typically the first place students go to address their mental health needs.

As reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, a whopping 96% of public schools provided mental health services to their students during the 2021-22 academic year. However, just over half agreed they could effectively deliver services to all students in need. According to the survey, educators identified three limitations that hindered their ability to provide adequate mental health support:

  1. Insufficient number of mental health professionals to manage their caseload
  2. Inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals
  3. Lack of funding

These challenges translate into less-than-ideal outcomes for K-12 youth. In fact, research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMA) sheds light on exactly how American students are feeling about the quality of their school-provided mental health services. Specifically, students identified a number of lingering issues, including:

  1. Mental health resources are mostly performative. In other words, schools mainly offer temporary, “band-aid” solutions rather than resources that directly address academic stress. NAMA reports many students are frustrated that school initiatives aren’t discussing the underlying reasons behind their anxiety — schoolwork, bullying, homelife, and so on.
  2. Schools prioritize college admission over student health. Many of the adolescents NAMA interviewed are concerned that their districts are more focused on producing college students than they are with promoting good mental health. When they go to counselors for support, they’re often told to focus on activities related to their college ambitions. As one respondent told researchers, “At times, it seems that schools’ systems push the idea of college and career so much that they forget to tend to students’ hearts and souls.”
  3. There’s too much focus on crisis response — not prevention. In short, educators tend to implement reactive policies rather than strategies that emphasize proactive intervention.

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7 ways educators can improve student mental health

What can your school district do to overcome its limitations and provide the mental health support your students deserve? Unfortunately, there’s no one-and-done solution when it comes to mental wellness.

However, there are several steps you can take to push your district in the right direction. Here are seven strategies you can implement to address your school’s mental health challenge:

1. Know the warning signs

As an administrator, staff member, or teacher, you have the advantage of witnessing a student’s normal behavior on a constant basis. That means you’re in the best position to identify sudden or noticeable differences that may indicate an underlying problem.

Knowing what to look for is the first step in effective intervention. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, signs of at-risk behavior include:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Seriously trying to harm oneself, or making plans to do so
  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing
  • Involvement in many fights or desire to badly hurt others
  • Severe out-of-control behavior that can hurt oneself or others
  • Not eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to make oneself lose weight
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
  • Extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still that puts the student in physical danger or causes problems in the classroom
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Drastic changes in the student’s behavior or personality

If you or a colleague observe one or more of the above, consult a counselor, nurse, or mental health professional for next steps.

2. Improve access to mental health resources

Whether it be a lack of funding or an insufficient number of mental health professionals, it’s not always simple for school districts to connect at-risk youth with the human services they need to address their mental wellness. One way to enhance access to mental health care is to extend your school’s reach through community-based programs.

Partnering with members of the broader community — such as a local mental health organization — can help bypass budgetary constraints. More importantly, it makes it easier for children and families to receive the support they need from licensed professionals.

Focus on equitable initiatives that don’t exclude one demographic over another. This is especially important considering how some teens are more susceptible to poor mental health than others. For instance, 45% of LGBTQ students seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Moreover, 60% of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to receive it. Ensuring your programs are welcoming to all types of people is key to keeping everyone safe and sound.

3. Foster a positive school climate

Kids spend most of their time on school grounds, which means it has a major role in shaping their emotional development. Strengthening school cultures can help create a positive, safe, and affirming environment where everyone feels comfortable. A few ways to accomplish this include anti-bullying policies, encouraging bystander intervention, and promoting inclusivity.

Another effective strategy for fostering positivity is to implement Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs. In essence, SEL is a process of developing self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills. Kids with strong emotional intelligence are able to cope with everyday challenges and thrive academically, professionally, and socially. SEL programs teach students mindfulness, problem-solving skills, and other valuable lessons for a lifetime of good mental health.

4. Develop anonymous reporting systems

Asking for help is hard. Reporting your friends is sometimes even harder. However, it’s absolutely critical that students feel comfortable coming forward when they experience and/or witness toxic or at-risk behavior.

Providing students with an anonymous reporting system empowers them to report incidents or concerns without fear of social retribution, ridicule, or judgment.

[FREE Webinar Recording] >> Back to School Safely: How Technology Can Improve Student Safety Incident Response >> WATCH HERE!

5. Promote mental health awareness

It’s not realistic for all school districts to hire a full-time social worker, let alone a whole team of mental health professionals. In this case, it’s often up to teachers and staff to discuss mental wellness with their students. But, if they lack proper training, they may end up saying something that only aggravates a student or makes their problem worse.

That’s why mental health education is essential — not only for kids, but staff members, too. When they’re trained to speak well about mental health problems, they’re able to more effectively mitigate an immediate issue and calm students down in a moment of crisis.

6. Filter out toxicity over the internet

It goes without saying that there’s some pretty dangerous content online. From graphic violence and sexual imagery to malicious websites and inappropriate material, students may be using school-provided resources to access a swarm of potentially harmful content.

Not only can exposure to these factors hinder a young person’s development, but they can also trigger pre-existing mental health conditions. Fortunately, with a cloud-based content filtering tool, you can easily block access to inappropriate websites at scale.

Take ManagedMethods, for example. Our Content Filter solution is built right into Google Admin portal, so you can rapidly launch it as a browser extension throughout the district. Customize your policies according to your needs and ensure students aren’t exposed to anything that may drum up negative emotions or distract them from their learning.

7. Implement a cloud monitoring solution

Remember those at-risk behaviors we discussed? Well, they also manifest themselves over the internet. Indeed, students often exhibit the very same mental health symptoms online as they do in real life — and they often do so using school-provided cloud applications.

For instance, a young person may journal their substance abuse in a Word document. They might discuss suicidal ideation with a classmate over Google Chat. However, without cloud visibility, these safety signals may go undetected.

The good news? That’s where Cloud Monitor comes into play. As a cloud monitoring tool, it keeps watch over Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 to rapidly identify signs of bullying, harassment, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and other toxic behaviors. As an early warning system, administrators can intervene at a moment’s notice, consult the appropriate stakeholders, and support the student however possible.

Take the next step with ManagedMethods

We’ve talked about the K-12 mental health crisis. We’ve outlined seven different strategies you can use to address it. Now, you can take your mental health education one step further.

How? By staying up to date with the latest news, advice, research, and more. Sign up for our Cybersecurity and Safety Insights newsletter to learn more about protecting your students from threats of all shapes and sizes.

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