Mental health in schools: How teachers can be the first line of support

Providence Health Team


In this article: 

  • It’s estimated that one-fifth of children struggle with mental illness in the U.S.

  • Schools are ideally positioned to recognize and address mental health issues, but most are under-resourced in this area.

  • Providence physicians share common signs to look for in your students or child, and how to get them talking.

The mental health of millions of U.S children is in jeopardy on a daily basis.

The Child Mind Institute estimates that one-fifth of children—or roughly 17 million—have or have had a diagnosable mental health condition.

A vast majority aren't receiving any help from the school in the form of therapy or counseling, which raises the question: How can this situation be improved?

A crisis in schools: understaffed and struggling to respond

The mental health crisis in our schools is a result of a lack of education on the matter, and a lack of resources to properly mitigate it. Teachers, who are the most hands-on with these students the majority of the time, aren't trained in mental health. And on top of that, they probably have many other students in that class and dozens of other responsibilities on their plate. They are not equipped with the time, resources, or training necessary to give students with signs of mental health issues the unique attention they deserve. Moreover, mental health education is seldom part of the student’s curriculum, even though parents recognize the importance of the subject.

And then there are the school counselors. With each counselor responsible for an average of 500 students, the chances of them recognizing symptoms of mental health issues in a portion of those students are slim. They are also employed to focus primarily on academics, so unless this student is seeing them on a regular basis for matters of academia, the counselor is unlikely to notice changes in behavior or attitude that would signify an underlying disorder.

A school psychologist would be ideal, but it's rare that public schools have full-time specialists in this field on staff.

So what can be done? And why is it so important that this issue be brought to light?

Barriers to help

Children with mental health issues often have the odds of success stacked against them. Often these ailments negatively affect their ability to learn, or at least their ability to learn at the same pace or in the same way as most of the other students in their classes. These mental health ailments can cause them to feel uncomfortable in classroom settings, discouraging them from speaking up or participating, and even causing them to have a harder time building relationships with others. Their mental health issues can be an upsetting distraction, contributing to their feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many children in this situation feel like no one understands them or is looking out for them.

How teachers can be the first line of support

Teachers are the people most likely to recognize the sign in their students, but if they don't have the time or education to properly approach the situation and cater specifically to the needs of that student, then how can they help once they pick up on a problem? A very simple way to open the door to a healthier education for these students would be for the teacher to approach the child directly, asking how they're feeling or if they need help with anything. If no one is asking the children if something is wrong, it'll be a rare occasion that the child opens up to anyone about it. Something as simple as this conversation could increase their drive to do well in school, while also giving them the space to talk about what's bothering them.

The National Association on Mental Illness reports that half of all chronic mental illness begins by 14 years of age. It's imperative to identify and address it as early as possible, and school staff is in the perfect position to identify early signs of mental illness. If teachers are encouraged by the school districts and administrators to pay attention to the mental health of their students, and given a clear course of action to get the child help, then perhaps we can work toward a more safe and stable educational environment for these children.

With all eyes paying attention, from home to school and back home again, there is a strong promise of a better tomorrow for children in our public schools. After all, it takes a village.


Find a doctor

Are you concerned about your child's mental health? You can find a Providence physician using our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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