Mental Health in Classrooms: Issues, Resources & 10 Ways Educators Can Help

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on our mental health, but when we discuss mental health, we often do so through the lens of adult issues. However, the impact on children’s mental health shouldn’t be overlooked — in the fall of 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children's Hospital Association and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry declared an emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

While this sounds alarming, there is good news. In recognizing the problem, many educators and schools are looking for ways to improve student mental health across the board. Mental health training for educators is helping teachers meet the needs of the moment and transforming how classrooms discuss and work on mental health initiatives.

Here is a breakdown of the current state of mental health in schools and some tools you can use in your classroom to address students’ emotional health in a positive manner. 

The State of Mental Health Issues in Children & Schools

The statistics about children’s mental health speaks for themselves:

  • 1 in 6 American children aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.

  • 50% of all mental health conditions begin by age 14.

  • 50–80% of school-aged children do not receive the mental health care they need.

While these numbers are alarming, there is much work being done to address this issue, and schools are on the front lines of children's mental health care. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), schools are uniquely positioned to identify, intervene and even prevent certain mental health-related issues in children. NAMI suggests the following solutions and results:

  • School staff — and students — can learn to identify the warning signs of an emerging mental health condition and how to connect someone to care.

  • School-based mental health services bring trained mental health professionals into schools and prioritize school-linked mental health services to connect youth and families to more intensive resources in the community.

  • School-based and school-linked mental health services reduce barriers to youth and families getting needed treatment and support, especially for communities of color and other underserved communities.

How Mental Health Issues Impact Learning

Evidence shows that mental health issues — or leaving health disorders untreated — has a direct negative effect on student performance, learning and wellbeing. Generally speaking, unaddressed mental health challenges make it harder for students to make friends, impacts their ability to concentrate, and reduces their energy levels. More specifically, issues like depression and anxiety are associated with lower grade point averages, increase the likelihood a student drops out of school, and can even lead to more severe outcomes such as suspension, expulsion and even suicide.

This makes prioritizing mental health in the classroom all the more critical — early detection of mental health struggles combined with supportive and individualized support can help change these students’ trajectories.

Types of Mental Health Issues Teachers Face in Classrooms

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common types of mental health issues teachers will face in the classroom include:

  • ADHD, behavior problems, anxiety, and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children

    • 9.4% of children aged 2-17 years (approximately 6.1 million) have received an ADHD diagnosis.

    • 7.4% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.5 million) have a diagnosed behavior problem. 

    • 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety. 

    • 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression.

Additional disorders that teachers and school officials should be on the lookout for include eating disorders and mood disorders, which more typically occur in early-to-middle adolescence.

6 Reasons Why Mental Health Training for Educators is Critical

Leading children’s mental health organizations, such as the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH) and the American Psychological Association report there are six primary reasons why school-based mental health support is critical to student success. Those reasons are:

  1. Mental health problems are common and often develop during childhood and adolescence.

  2. Student mental health issues impact the student and their peers.

  3. They are treatable.

  4. Creating a healthy learning environment is imperative for learning outcomes. 

  5. Early detection and intervention strategies work, and they can help improve resilience and the ability to succeed in school and life.

  6. Training helps educators protect their own mental health.

10 Ideas to Address Mental Health in Your Classroom

Knowing that student mental health is critical and having a plan to improve it are two very different things. And because mental health can be a complex issue, proper mental health training for teachers is of the utmost importance. Beyond focused intervention training, there are a number of steps teachers can take — both generally and in dealing with students in crisis — to address mental health in the classroom.

General Mental Health Positive Practices

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the free resources mentalhealth.gov, where they provide tips and tools teachers can use. Here are some of their suggestions:

  1. Educate staff, parents and students on symptoms of and help for mental health problems. Symptoms will vary greatly depending on the mental health disorder a child is facing.

  2. Promote social and emotional competency and build resilience. In children, this presents itself as confidence, optimism and hope, caring and respect for self and others, problem-solving and coping skills, ability to reframe stress, and sense of purpose and meaning.

  3. Help ensure a positive, safe school environment. This includes, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

  4. Teach and reinforce positive behaviors and decision-making. Many teachers accomplish this through curriculum choices that empower students to lead and make decisions.

  5. Encourage helping others. Many teachers add a volunteerism initiative to their curriculum, or they have the class volunteer together in school or in the community.

  6. Encourage good physical health.

  7. Help ensure access to school-based mental health resources. Work with guidance counselors or behavior support specialists to ensure that students get the help they need.

Student-Specific Support Practices

  1. Give students with diagnosed mental health issues flexible deadlines if they are clearly suffering from a mental health-related episode. If a flexed deadline doesn’t work, consider giving them the option to redo work so they feel more confident turning it in.

  2. If you’re planning any activities that include public speaking or large group work, give the students advanced notice so they can mentally prepare. Pre-planning for group discussions and sharing assignment details can help reduce their anxiety.

  3. Make a plan for what the student can do if and when they are unable to focus due to their mental health. This accommodation may be mandated by an IEP or 504 plan, but if it’s not, it’s still a good idea to help the student know what steps to take if they need support.

Classroom Mental Health Training Resources & Education

The best way to support children with a mental health diagnosis is to enhance your knowledge on the subject. Mental health training for educators is arguably the best way to ensure that you have the proper tools to support children in need. 

At the University of San Diego’s Division of Professional and Continuing Education (PCE), we offer a Mental Health First Response certificate designed to do just that. Upon completion of this program, you will be equipped to be a mental health first responder. You will learn the skills necessary to make appropriate referrals and respond to emotional, mental and social issues within the school setting and will be actively working to improve student mental health. 

If you’re looking for additional information or reputable support resources, consider these:

Required fields are indicated by .