- 44% of high school students surveyed felt persistently sad or hopeless during the past year.
- A supportive classroom culture fosters relationships that sustain people when they’re struggling mentally and emotionally.
- Teacher self-care is an essential component of creating a supportive classroom culture.
For Chapman educational studies professors Amy Ardell and Michael Hass, it was a moment of clarity. Hass was guest lecturing in Ardell’s class of student teachers, and the moment the discussion turned to student mental health issues, the stories started flowing.
A high school student teacher told of a youngster who had just come out as gay to their family, and the family kicked them out of the house.
“What do I do?” the teacher asked.
A third-grade teacher offered background on a student who had an incarcerated parent, sharing that sometimes the student would bolt from the class right in the middle of a lesson.
“How do I help him?” she asked.
“After three hours of all these questions and all the stories about what they’d seen, it was clear that we needed to give teachers a bit of a mental health primer,” said Ardell, Ph.D., instructional assistant professor in the Attallah College of Educational Studies at Chapman University.
Now that book is available. Hass and Ardell have co-authored “Supporting Student Mental Health: Essentials for Teachers,” a guide to the basics of identifying and supporting students with mental health challenges.
The class discussion that inspired their book is certainly not the only evidence of an acute need for advice and strategies to help teachers cope with what many educators are calling a crisis of mental health in the classroom.
CDC Research Data ‘Echo a Cry for Help.’
A report on high school students released in March by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows how the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has made an already bad situation worse.
The data, collected in 2021, show that 44% of students surveyed felt persistently sad or hopeless during the past year, with more than 55% saying that they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home.
“These data echo a cry for help,” said CDC official Debra Houry, MD. “Our research shows that surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future.”
Ardell and Hass hope their book will help get resources to those who now recognize the need to seek them out.
“Now the problem is inescapable, even for people who might not have paid attention to it before,” said Hass, Ph.D., professor of scholarly practice in Attallah College as well as a school psychologist, licensed educational psychologist and clinical counselor.
A Supportive Learning Environment Has widespread Benefits
A big part of the authors’ message is that when teachers set up a healthy classroom environment and “do other things they think are for academic purposes, those things are also good for mental health purposes,” said Ardell, Ph.D., who has expertise in teacher education and is a former elementary school teacher.
A supportive classroom culture fosters relationships that sustain people when they’re struggling mentally and emotionally, the authors emphasized.
“That supportive environment allows people to be vulnerable and to ask for help,” Ardell said.
“Relationships are so fundamental to being human that they can literally make everything better or everything worse,” Hass added. “I always say to students in my counseling classes that students don’t have to love you, they just have to trust you.”
With that bond in place, teachers are better prepared to absorb sometimes startling revelations without immediately rushing the student up to the office.
“We want [teachers to] have a supportive conversation and then use that as a bridge to connect the student to more specialized help,” Hass said.
Recognizing cases that require follow-up and referral is a huge part of the equation, the authors say. Not every student who is suffering externalizes that pain.
“The child who has a tantrum or otherwise lashes out gets referred all the time,” Hass said. “But kids who are depressed or who have significant anxiety often go unnoticed. Maybe they’re not doing as well as they used to in class, but they’re kind of holding it together. We want to help teachers pick up on those clues.”
‘A Healthy Teacher Means Healthy Kids’
In their last chapter, the authors focus on self-care for teachers, which they are careful not to oversimplify. As Hass says, “It’s not as simple as, ‘Go eat your vegetables and everything will be fine.’”
“It’s using our own relationships to support and sustain us, because we know that a healthy teacher means healthy kids,” Ardell said. “This year has been incredibly stressful on many of our colleagues in the field.”
The wider community needs to ensure that teachers are feeling connected and valued in meaningful ways that go beyond cards and gifts during Teacher Appreciation Week, Ardell added.
“We, as a society, need to commit to protecting educators’ well being, and we need them to know that they don’t have to wear four hats,” she said.
“We want to help teachers make a smooth and intentional hand-off to a mental health professional, then go back to making sure their classroom is welcoming, culturally responsive and safe. Those are the things kids need most to support their mental health.”