4 ways to create safe mental health environments for our students

Stepping in to solve the youth mental health crisis in classrooms may seem daunting, but with a plan, it’s possible

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt our nation’s youth a difficult hand. After adapting to virtual learning over the past year and a half, many students this school year prepared to return to in-person education, despite concerns about their emotional well-being and the evolving pandemic situations.

According to recent research, nearly half (48 percent) of U.S. teens are concerned about experiencing social anxiety as they transition back to “normal” life. Additionally, 47 percent express concern about falling behind in school this year, and 43 percent report that they are concerned about mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic.

As teens grapple with these uncertainties in school and beyond, educators are taking note and are anticipating that mental health issues will have a major impact on student progress this year. In fact, 41 percent of surveyed U.S. high school educators anticipate that both student anxiety about returning to in-person learning and students with pre-existing emotional or behavioral challenges experiencing exacerbated conditions will have “a lot” or “tremendous impact” on the quality of learning.

Though it can seem daunting to tackle the challenges and implications the pandemic has had–and will continue to have–on the lives and well-being of youth, we must act now to prioritize their mental health. School districts, parents, and caring adults need to develop a plan to help kids and teens receive the support they need.

To create safe mental health environments, we should consider:

1. Preparing for a “new normal” to address different emotional, social, and mental health needs. Change will not happen overnight. Have patience and set realistic expectations for students to build back social skills and the capacity to focus. Build-in time to assess and address readiness and support needs.

2. Training others to notice and respond to mental health needs in functional and supportive ways. All faculty, staff, parents, and caring adults should be educated to recognize signs of struggle, know how to reach out to offer support, and be knowledgeable about where to refer students for professional help when needed. You can find resources here.

3. Taking care of your own mental health. Making time and space for your own needs is an important part of meeting the needs of youth. And when they see you prioritizing and modeling self-care, they’ll learn to do the same.

4. Finding ways to implement innovative solutions. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. Finding ways to incorporate new or adaptable tools into the classroom is key from a district level.  

The emotional and mental toll from these past few months will never fully “go away,” but with consistent and informed support, we can make a difference in the lives of our nation’s children and prepare them for a brighter future, both physically and mentally.

eSchool Media Contributors