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Supporting Mental Wellness for High Schoolers: Just Be There

Supporting Mental Wellness for High Schoolers: Just Be There

In August of 2017, the Minnesota Department of Education passed a new requirement for Minnesota teachers renewing their teaching license: at least one hour of suicide prevention training. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen suicide rates are at an all-time high, with suicides rising 33 percent from 1999 to 2017. Even though the cause of the steady climb in suicides is unknown and there is a lot of speculation, there is no question that something needs to be done.

The truth of the matter is that students are stressed out more than ever trying to juggle their academics, activities, jobs, social circles, and emotions. Bullying has progressed from something that occurred on school property to something that follows students home every night on several outlets of social media. Teachers, especially middle and high school teachers, do not always recognize mental health issues in their classrooms, as it they can often be disguised as looks of boredom in class. Creating a positive culture in the classroom makes students more accessible by building positive relationships with all students; this, however, can be difficult, as it's nearly impossible to understand the dynamics of student-student relationships as well as the individual well-being of each student. Once you can establish a positive culture and personal relationships in the classroom, students are more likely to seek you out when they need you most. 

Teachers are not mental health professionals; however, you see children daily which makes you an invaluable asset to your students. Many times, you see your students more than their parents. As someone who is a constant in students’ lives, many teachers feel that they are expected to provide the same support and care to their students as if the students were their own children. In order to do this, teachers must be provided with the correct tools to help their students. While the task of preventing suicide and promoting mental wellness can be daunting and overwhelming, there are ways to make sure that your students have access to the thing they need most—you and a support system that does not include social media. 

Be There for Your Students

We have created a culture of texting, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram—all nonverbal modes of communication. Yet, we expect teenagers to pick up the phone, call and talk to a person on a crisis line whom they have never met. We expect teenagers to tell these people their most personal stories and emotions. At the beginning of each trimester with new students, I make it a point to have all my students pull out their phones and input the number 741741 under the name “Help” in their contacts. This is the number for a national Crisis Text Line; adults and teens can use the service to receive support when dealing with a crisis in a way they are most comfortable—via text messaging. 

Many schools feel like they have done their part by just providing resources to students. Unfortunately, many websites, pamphlets, articles, and statistics will only make them feel overwhelmed by information. Ultimately, we are just passing the buck back to the students, essentially saying: “Here you go. I know you are young and your brain hasn’t formed enough to know how to deal with everything you are going through. Here are some resources. Figure it out.” 

Modeling Is Key

What many good teachers can tell you is that modeling is key for children. Parents or teachers who model a specific behavior is more likely to see their children or students model the same behavior. If a teacher takes two minutes before a test or presentation to practice breathing exercises with students, that teacher has provided a valuable tool for students to use in future stressful scenarios. If a teacher models the behavior of sharing details from his or her home life, like personal stories, favorite hobbies, shows, or foods, students will follow suit. 

If there is a student who is crying or who is visibly upset during class, quietly call the student to the hallway and ask if he or she wants to talk about it or needs a moment to collect himself or herself. Tell the student that you care about him or her and that you are there for him or her. For some teachers, this is difficult because they feel like this entangles them in high school drama and opens to the door to situations they do not feel equipped to handle. Most times, students just want someone to listen and tell them that what they are feeling is normal and that everything will be OK. If the situation feels out of your realm to handle in a short period of time, that is exactly why school counselors are there. Checking in with the student the following day reaffirms the fact that you are a part of the support system that they can trust. 

At the end of the day, teachers can only control what happens inside the four walls of their classrooms. Make your classroom a soft place for students to fall. If teachers draw from their own experiences and facilitate an open conversation with students about mental health, students will absolutely listen. It never hurts for teachers to show their students that they are human. Does that mean teaching full lessons on mental wellness? Of course not. However, it does not take much more than a second to ask students about their weekends, their activities, or their families in order to start developing that relationship. This will help you notice when they are at their most vulnerable—just in time to help scoop them up and let them know that they matter. 

Looking for more ways to support mental health in the classroom? Check out these tips to help students cope with general anxiety

*These opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Independent School District 192.