With 49% of American adolescents managing mental disorders, and with 22.5% of these 13 – to 18-year-old youngsters dealing with severe impairments, school districts have realized it is necessary to take a more proactive role in recognizing and helping to treat these very personal conditions. For most, this requires a more structured approach to 1) monitoring student mental health and 2) providing services to support students in need.
For districts that are in the early stages of this process, a good starting point is to consider the wellbeing of the “whole child.” For example, some schools are implementing curriculums that address the massive impact of technology and include social-emotional learning to teach skills students can use to moderate and manage their own behaviors. The curriculum also helps adolescents treat others with understanding, develop persistence and display resilience in the face of their personal challenges.
Here are five more steps that all districts can take to help their struggling students and support their social and emotional health both in and out of school:
Create a strong support system within the district and community. Build a strong counseling group on campus. This can include a team of social workers, a group of individuals, or even community groups (i.e., Boys and Girls Clubs) that are willing to support the school with their services. In Nampa, Idaho, one school district relies on community support from partners like the mayor/city hall and other organizations in the area. To be most effective, all parties must recognize that mental health is a community issue—not just a school issue. The district also mobilized a Behavioral Youth Impact Team, which is a collection of community groups that addresses student problems as they occur.
Implement a system that identifies student behaviors. Not every student will reach out when he or she is experiencing social, emotional, or academic challenges in school or at home. For example, “quieter” students can be a major risk and difficult for teachers and administrators to reach. However, a student safety platform like Gaggle can provide visibility into what these students are viewing, writing and experiencing online—all of which can help with early intervention.
Teach students (and teachers) technology etiquette. Educational technology has evolved quickly over the last few years, and many teachers and administrators are struggling to keep up with it. To help, many districts are starting to provide education aimed at teaching responsible use of technology. Digital Citizen Academy, a program I developed, is an example of an online safety curriculum and a peer-to-peer mentoring initiative. Teaching students to recognize the warning signs in their peers and how they can help one another when mental health-related situations arise is key. Districts can focus on rewarding smart technology behaviors and reinforcing the fact that technology can be used for both good and bad. Be sure to keep parents in the loop; they need lessons too.
Have a solid intervention strategy in place. When a threat occurs, your district team has to be ready. One Texas district created a chain of command comprising hand-picked counselors and administrators who are willing to answer the phone or address a student situation at any time of the day. It combines its student safety platform with on-campus resource officers and strong relationships with the local police department. The only way to intervene is to know what the students are doing, and it takes a coordinated group with a plan to make this happen.
Break down the mental health stigma. Start a community conversation about problems, solutions, available resources and how to access them. Get some open conversations going about the state of adolescent mental health and discuss the roles that everyone can play in helping to improve it. Students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders should all understand that it’s perfectly okay to talk about mental health with one another.
Lastly, make sure students feel involved in these solutions. The programs should be created with them, and not dictated to them.
Lisa Strohman, Ph.D, is a psychologist, attorney, author, and mother. She established Digital Citizen Academy to help keep families safe from online dangers.
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