There is a clear and well-researched relationship between student mental health problems and academic difficulties. When students are preoccupied with emotional concerns they cannot participate fully in learning. Also, students who are experiencing academic challenges due to learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or other learning challenges can develop mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. These concerns also interfere with social relationships and contribute to feelings of low self-worth, anger, worry and confusion. Since mental health problems are often difficult to treat, the earlier the intervention, the better the trajectory for a student vulnerable to mental illness.
Fortunately, there is now a significant body of research that shows there are programs and practices that can be used to support children and youth at risk. These programs can keep students from falling into a negative spiral by bolstering social, academic, or emotional skills, changing negative thought patterns, and nurturing a sense of well-being. As well, psychosocial treatments, like cognitive-behaviour therapy and parent training, have been proven to be effective in helping students with anxiety, depressed mood, and behaviour problems. The use of medication has also been shown to be helpful for some children and youth struggling with particular mental health problems. Even when difficulties are long-standing, there are ways to help students and families to effectively manage the disorder, just as you might with other chronic health conditions.
Since mental health problems are often difficult to treat, the earlier the intervention, the better the trajectory for a student vulnerable to mental illness.
Unfortunately, very few children and youth who struggle with mental health problems will access the help they need. There are currently several barriers to getting help:
- Often the stigma associated with acknowledging emotional problems prevents many people from accessing services.
- Caring adults and peers may be in a position to help, but they often feel ill-equipped to identify problems and to know where to find professional assistance.
- Finally, even when problems are voiced and/ or identified, in some communities there are not enough services to meet the demand.
Since every child is required to attend school, these issues with access make schools an important place to support students with mental health concerns. Indeed, schools are an optimal setting:
- to reduce stigma;
- to promote positive mental health;
- to build student social-emotional learning skills;
- to prevent the development of mental health problems in high risk groups;
- to identify students in need, and to support them in accessing community services.
It is very important that teachers and support staff understand that they are not expected to become counsellors or therapists nor are school boards expected to do the work of community mental health organizations. Rather, what is important is that education has a role to play in a full system of care. This role involves creating caring schools and classrooms, building social emotional learning skills, and helping to identify students in need of early intervention.
Adapted from: Leading Mentally Healthy Schools: A Resource for School Administrators (School Mental Health – ASSIST, 2013)
This blog post is part of CEA’s focus on student mental health, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s student mental health theme issue and a Facts on Education fact sheet on what the research says about effective approaches to improving students’ mental well-being. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.