The term “mental illness” often carries a negative connotation, despite growing and progressive conversations surrounding it. The stigma with mental illness often generates buzzwords like incompetence, illness or imbalance from those who do not understand its inner workings. Because of the negativity surrounding mental illness, many shy away from seeking help or providing assistance to those in need.    

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.” 

Kids who have high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores are in a constant state of fight or flight. This state can cause a tremendous impact on their ability to learn. In another study, two-thirds of the more than 17,000 participants had an ACE score of at least one, and 12 percent had an ACE score of four or more, which is thought to be a solid representation of society.  Mental wellness challenges are in your classrooms and your students need your help.

If we take the time to consider ways to remove the stigma in order to create an environment where those struggling with mental illness can better thrive, what if we were to reframe the idea of mental illness? Better yet, what if we were to replace the word “illness” with “wellness?” How would the perception then change?

With the name change, the term sounds approachable. For example, using the term mental wellness in a sentence makes the topic more palatable for students and adults alike: “Student mental wellness challenges continue to soar due to test anxiety, social media, and peer-related issues.” This subtle change may elicit a stronger response that can be fostered in a classroom.

Addressing mental wellness in the classroom is extremely crucial. Nearly 40% of students with mental wellness challenges drop out of school. Students are oftentimes too afraid to seek care, are not sure how to seek care or they do not have access to helpful resources. 

Schools can play a significant role in addressing student mental wellness. With daily exposure to trusted adults in schools, students have access to opportunities for identification, supportive messages and the chance for a referral. Research also supports that students are more likely to complete treatment when it is offered in schools.

Educators have both the right and the responsibility to make mental wellness a priority for their students in these steps.  

  • Identify your students who are struggling. Ask yourself, what do they look like? 

Students struggling with mental wellness may often appear withdrawn, agitated, angry, fast to react with extreme emotions, isolated, fearful and may be a high performing student with undue pressure. 

The average delay in the onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years, so being able to identify these traits in your students can jumpstart a process that could take up to a decade to occur. Students should not have to wait for help, and if they do, the reality is that they’ll be long gone from your influence by the time that happens.

  • Say something.

After identifying a potential student in need, you have to be willing to speak up, which oftentimes educators are fearful to do because of the fear that their words may not come out right or that they will make a problem worse. Start by saying something to the student indicating that you see them, they matter to you and that you truly want to help them.  

 A simple way to acknowledge your students covers four parts: 

  1. Notice them 
  2. State your concern (make it measurable, not judgment-based)
  3. Offer help through a conversation or a resource 
  4. Appreciate them

If we combine these parts, a conversation starter may look something like, “Hey [student name], I’ve noticed that you have been sitting alone most days of the week and I’m concerned that something might be weighing on you. Can I offer you some time to talk or let [counselor, for example] know that we’ve spoken? You matter and I appreciate your being a part of this class.”

  • Properly refer.

If they take you up on talking, have the conversation (only if you are comfortable). If they take you up on the referral, be prepared to send them to the proper referral source: counselor, social worker, psychologist or an administrator. Be careful of violating their confidentiality and let them know what you are doing – not because you are a reporter, but because you care.  Remember, if you offer the referral, follow up on the same day.

In three steps, you can make a huge difference in a students’ life.  As noted in literature, “no one who’s experienced significant adversity (or many ACEs) is irreparably damaged.” By providing children with responsive relationships and strengthening core life skills, we can prevent and counteract lasting harm. You don’t need to be an expert to make a difference, you simply need to be able to take the necessary steps that could positively impact their lives.