With the rising rates of youth suicide, self-harm, and depression it can feel like a minefield that is best avoided at all costs.
Teachers often worry that they will say the wrong thing, or trigger students with a comment that makes them even more upset, and so they avoid bringing up the issue of mental health with their students altogether.
There is also a common misconception that because teachers are not specifically trained in psychology, they are not equipped to manage the mental health of their students. But this is a massive undervaluing of the incredible skillset of the teaching profession.
It is pretty much impossible to be a teacher without gaining a deep understanding of student mental health.
Every day, teachers see kids being picked on or dumping their emotions onto others. They observe the disappointments, insecurities, and struggles that create a build up of pressure which eventually sends a student over the edge into a “diagnosable disorder”.
And this is why teachers are actually the best possible mental health resource for their students.
Despite what some may think, teachers do not need a psychology degree to boost resilience and combat suicide and depression in their classrooms.
They have already acquired the skills they need through managing the catastrophes they regularly face in their classes, and through the relationships and connections that they naturally build with their students.
Mental health resources can appear complex, and stats on youth mental health can seem quite intimidating. But what kids really need is actually very simple:
They need to know that what they are feeling is normal.
The world we live in is geared towards avoiding discomfort. For every inconvenience and struggle we have a quick fix – a pill for this, an app for that. Kids today are constantly given the message that life should be easy, and if it’s not – well they must be doing something wrong.
Social media adds to this illusion. Images of “happy” and “healthy” people living the “good” life are flashing before young eyes regularly, leading them to believe that there are people out there who never feel sad or insecure or vulnerable.
This is exactly what leads to the increasing mental health struggles that youth today are facing. Because the reality is that everone feels down sometimes, and adolescents more so than most.
The teenage brain is in a process of great flux and change. They are growing a whole network of new mental pathways that will transform their capabilities from that of a dependent child to a fully independent adult.
They are tasked with the incredible feat of finding out “who they are” and making decisions about education, career, lifestyle, sexuality (and now often gender) without having any real understanding of what these will actually mean for their lives in the long-term.
It’s pretty much impossible to go through this intense period of growth without feeling insecure, lost, and terribly alone at times.
And this is the crucially important thing to remember – they are GROWING – they are not FAILING.
This is what our culture would have them believe. We have a misconception about “mental health issues” which interprets every low mood, every anxious thought, every self-sabotaging behaviour as a sign that we are doing something wrong.
We have created an invisible line between mentally “well” and mentally “ill” and the goal has become doing everything we can to stay on the right side of this line. We assume that only professionals who understand where this line falls can prevent the terrifying slip towards the dark side from occurring.
So it’s no wonder that teachers balk at the task of addressing mental health in their students. No one wants to mess up and cause more of a “problem”.
Yet student mental health is not about never feeling sad. It’s not even about not having suicidal thoughts. What mental wellness is really about is normalising that all feelings are ok. And not only ok, but helpful in many ways. And that our thoughts and feelings often lead to undesirable actions, but that we actually have the power to choose what actions we take when we are feeling something overwhelming and difficult.
Picture this – you have a student whose parents are going through a divorce. They are devastated and feeling lost and helpless. If we took the traditional approach to mental health, we would be determining weather or not this child is “coping”.
Are they still doing their homework? Do they still socialise with their friends? Do they look happy? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then we would keep them on the “healthy” side of the line, and assume they don’t need any intervention.
However, if they stopped engaging in school, if they retreated from their friends, or if they seemed sad all the time, we would classify them as having “mental health issues” and in need of a professional to intervene with specific psychological tools for fixing these problems and making them “normal” again.
Here is where teachers can be so much more helpful to the wellness of students that our current mental health system has the capacity for. Because what this child really needs, regardless of how they are reacting, is a way of understanding what they are feeling and experiencing.
This situation does not need a professional qualification to diagnose or treat the ‘condition’ of their actions – what is needed is for this child to know that it’s normal to feel sad and lost and afraid when their world changes so drastically, and that they may react in many different ways to this experience.
They need to be able to explore these feelings and derive meaning from what is happening around them and within them, without being made to feel wrong or faulty.
Because this experience may be hard, but it doesn’t have to be bad.
And this is how teachers can have the biggest impact on the mental health of their students: by creating a narrative in their classrooms that feelings are normal by sharing their own feelings, talking about other people’s feelings, and making feelings a regular part of conversation, to highlight that they are a regular part of the human experience.
Taking this one step further, teachers can also help their students see the value of emotions – the creativity that comes from sorrow, the boundaries and revolutionary change that sparks from anger, the motivation that can be derived from jealousy.
They can explore where emotions can lead us when we simply stop and listen to them, by reflecting: “I wonder what that person was feeling that made them act that way?” or “what did that person gain from going through that hard experience?”
Asking these types of questions gives students a chance to see that painful feelings are normal, and that we can learn to face these feelings in a way that helps us grow and make great contributions to our world as a direct result of our most difficult experiences.
As a teacher you can embed this learning and weave it through your students’ lives in a way that a psychologist never has access to.
The reality is that most students will never seek professional help to manage their wellbeing. There are so many barriers that get in the way – there is the cost, the stigma, and the accessibility of mental health interventions that all combine to make this an unviable option for so many youth.
And even when they do seek professional help, one hour a week exploring their feelings can have a huge impact – but can only go so far. To be reminded of this learning throughout the day every day is far more helpful.
Because at the heart of it, mental health is really about feelings and our relationship to feelings.
If we can teach kids that they can explore their feelings rather than reacting to them, they will be miles ahead of the culture they are entering into – and hopefully they will grow the skillset to change it for the rest of us.
Find out more about Dr Watson's programs for schools at www.openparachuteschools.com