Dear Future Teachers,
We all want our students to be safe, happy, and healthy. When I was growing up, physical health was talked about a lot in school. From Physical Education classes to learning about the food pyramid, students are often told that eating healthy and exercising regularly is good for them. Physical health is extremely important, but I rarely, if ever, had conversations about mental health in schools. The social-emotional wellbeing of students is soooo important, and mental health is often overlooked due to stigmatization or because mental illness often isn't visible to the eye. Today I want to talk about the importance of discussing mental health, and how we can go about it in our schools. Especially because we are actively living through a pandemic, and students are facing a lot more stress and trauma than normal, we need to show up for our students!
An Overview of Mental Health
"Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act." (mentalhealth.gov). A person's mental health should be discussed at all stages of life. Mental health CAN impact us physically, so it is important to make sure we are taking care of our own mental health as well as our students. Mental illness can range from depression, to eating disorders, to anxiety, to PTSD, to bipolar disorder, to many other different conditions. It doesn't always stem from traumatic experiences, and it doesn't make a person "weaker" than people who don't suffer from mental illness. There is a lot of stigmatization around mental illness, so I would like to debunk known stereotypes and advocate for the proper resources to be added to ALL schools to help students mentally and emotionally.
Debunking stigmas around mental health
Unfortunately, many people tend to view mental illness with caution and wariness. Some people may feel afraid to come forward if they need help because they are scared of being judged or even shunned for an illness that is just as legitimate as a broken bone. I'm going to list out some stigmas associated with mental illness and explain why they are harmful and inaccurate.
Myth: You can "snap out of" depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. Without proper treatment, depression/anxiety/etc. can't magically disappear. To have a mental illness isn't a choice where one can simply decide to "feel better." Sometimes they may need therapy, medication, or another medically prescribed coping strategy.
Myth: People with mental illness can't function in daily life. There are plenty of people who can function while in a bad place mentally. While some cannot physically bring themselves to get out of bed, it does not mean all people who have a mental illness will struggle in the same way. Additionally, just because someone who may have previously been non-functional due to mental illness is now functioning throughout their day, they aren't suddenly cured or "fixed," they may be using personal coping strategies to get through their day.
Myth: People with mental illness are "crazy" or "unstable". By calling those who suffer from mental illness terms like "crazy", you are perpetuating the idea that they are dangerous and out of control. In most cases, people with mental illness aren't a danger to themselves or others. They may need help, but they shouldn't be avoided or treated like a ticking time bomb. Even if someone IS acting erratically, they should still be revered as human beings who need support.
Myth: Having a mental illness means one is weak or different from others, they should be able to take care of it by themselves. Mental disorders are NOT the fault of those who have them. It is not a sign of weakness, it is a legitimate health concern that should be addressed. We shouldn't expect people with a mental illness to help themselves alone. A strong support group, a medical professional, and a specific plan or course of treatment are necessary for one to gain the skills to be able to cope and heal in their every day lives.
How mental illness can manifest
As I mentioned earlier, mental health problems don't always stem from trauma, nor are they the fault of the individual. Your mental health can be compromised through a variety of different reasons including:
Trauma or Abuse
Chemical imbalances in the brain
Family history of mental health problems
A traumatic brain injury
Exposure to toxins while in the womb
Side effect of specific medications
Much like there is more than one type of mental illness, there is a broad range of how mental illness can develop. Mental illness can 100% occur in young children due to experiences or conditions outside of their control. It's important to remember that each person struggling with their mental health is unique in their situation, and they all deserve respect and compassion.
Strategies to check in on students
As a teacher, you're involved in the social-emotional development of students. While you can't possibly prevent all of your students from developing a mental illness sometime in their lives, you can provide an environment that normalizes talking about mental health and actively seeks to strengthen the mental health of students. There are activities to help transform your classroom into a functioning safe space for students:
Daily check-ins. I found one idea on Pinterest where students can write their names on the backs of sticky notes and then stick them onto a mood board next to the appropriate mood. Not only does it allow students to identify and name their emotions, but it gives you an idea of who might need additional support that day. Link to the board is here: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/663225482615054454/.
Affirmations. As I mentioned in my previous post, Warmup Activities To Build a Positive Classroom Climate, daily affirmations should be used in the classroom. It can help boost self esteem and remind students of how incredible, beautiful, smart, and strong they are. Apart from chanting affirmations out-loud together, I also found an "Affirmation Station" that you can construct in your room, too! A link for this idea: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/703617141768013788/
The Calming Corner. This activity is especially helpful for younger students. Young students are still learning how to recognize and verbalize how they feel. By punishing them for having big emotions, you aren't giving them a chance to wonder why they may be acting out, and you also won't understand if there is a deeper issue at hand. The calming corner is a space where they can journal, fidget with small, soothing objects, practice breathing exercises, etc. For more tips on how to set up your calming corner, visit https://www.teachingexceptionalkinders.com/2019/07/how-to-set-up-a-calm-down-corner-that-really-works.html
Teaching about mental health. Opening up conversations about mental health normalizes the fact that some people do struggle with mental illness, and it's not something to be judged for. Find materials to help explain mental health at age appropriate levels (books, video clips, lesson plans, etc.) and regularly use vocabulary to get students familiar with becoming aware of their own mental health. Try to debunk stigmas if they arise and avoid using stereotypes that perpetuate a negative image of people with mental illnesses.
Be an ally for your students. This is the most important thing we can do as teachers. Being an ally for students is more than declaring your classroom as a "safe space." You must show them through your actions that you are truly there for ALL of them. Get to know your students, show interest in their lives, understand how each one operates and how they prefer to discuss difficult matters. When they do come to you for help, make it count with open arms and NO judging. Let them know you will help guide them to the appropriate people and resources to aid them in their problems. Being an authentic and loving individual will shine through and allow students to open up to you.
Phrases to AVOID when helping students navigate their emotions
"It's all in your head."
"Snap out of it."
"You just need to be more positive."
"You have a great life, why are you upset?"
"Everyone feels like that sometimes, just push through it."
"It's not a big deal."
Phrases to USE when helping students navigate their emotions
"I am here for you."
"You are not a burden to me."
"What can I do for you?"
"It's okay if you don't know how to talk about it, but I am here to listen when you're ready."
"Do you want to sit/breathe/take a walk/get some water/write/draw?"
"How are you doing?"
Advocating for more counselors in schools
Ultimately, the task of teaching is a lot of work. It would be unrealistic and unhealthy for teachers to try to balance academic growth and social-emotional wellbeing on their own. This is why it's important for students to have additional support within the school, too! Having guidance counselors and trained mental health professionals available for students would benefit students who need help! Teachers are awesome, and they should do what they can to support their students, but more money should be allocated to schools for mental health, where they can hire individuals who specifically attend to mental health in students.
As teachers and education advocates, we should always advocate for the improvement of mental health resources in schools! Email your school districts and state representatives and let them know this topic is important to you! Mental health professionals can recognize the physical signs of mental health issues within students, can help create an action plan for each student in need, have been trained in deescalating situations, and create a space for students to receive the support they need. Better mental health can improve academic performance and school success, so if we expect our students to excel, we need to make sure they are physically and mentally taken care of as we prepare them for the next steps in their lives!
Like education, mental health is a topic that is extremely important to me. I am constantly learning how to recognize my own emotions, how to ask for help, how to be there for others, how to create boundaries, and how to apply my knowledge to my classroom in the future. If you have any other suggestions or mental health resources, please send them my way through my Contact Form via my home page or by emailing me at email@example.com!