Behavioral and mental health services can be life-changing for students. They help students learn ways to cope with their differences and succeed. However, compared to elementary students, secondary students are less likely to ask for help or admit they are struggling.
In my experience, secondary students are wary of seeking out support for their mental health needs for two reasons. First, they don’t want to be stigmatized. In elementary school, school-based mental health professionals—including school psychologists, social workers, counselors, and more—are involved in character education efforts, making it common for a student to be approached by someone in this role. Additionally, younger students do not usually think that a peer seeing a mental health professional is “different.” At the secondary level, it becomes less typical for a student to visit a mental health professional’s office. Everyone knows what they are there for, and students are more likely to see this as something that separates them from their peers.
Secondly, many students are worried they will not be given “a clean slate” in order to discuss issues without any bias based on siblings, family status, or prior behavior. They also worry about having their “secrets” spilled to parents or others, the way grades are discussed openly, leading the student to question confidentiality. Students fear they will be judged and their secrets will get out.
These situations can deter students from asking for help. When students do not get the mental health support they need, they become at-risk. And, for students with serious mental health issues such as self-harm or suicide concerns, they may deny themselves help that could drastically change—or save—their lives. Schools are often the first line of defense for mental health concerns. To make students feel more comfortable seeking help, schools should start by attempting to eliminate the stigma.
Consider alternative therapy modalities. Online therapy, or telepractice, is growing in popularity across the country. Instead of meeting in person, a student and his or her mental health professional meet via a live, secure videoconferencing connection. To other students, it looks as if the student is working on an online assignment on a laptop or computer, which is not unlikely in today’s schools. For students concerned about the confidentiality of seeing a mental health professional, the online modality makes them feel more comfortable, since the professional is remote. Telepractice allows students to make the decision about what to disclose and to whom, which makes them feel empowered. This can ultimately translate into more successful therapy.
Promote self-acceptance schoolwide. Schoolwide assemblies about general mental health awareness, including suicide prevention and bullying, create opportunities for meaningful conversations; however, consistently promoting self-acceptance and awareness is more effective. Schools need to talk about how there is no such thing as being “perfect.” Faculty and administrators should be open about their strengths and weaknesses and remind students that it is OK to admit to and speak openly about struggles.
Teach students to self-advocate. I know I am bad at organization, and because of this, I have to write everything down in a day planner. If I’m walking through the halls and run into someone who wants to schedule a meeting for a specific day and time, I self-advocate by identifying my weakness and ask the person to help—usually I ask them to send me an email reminder or to wait until I can put it in my calendar. Schools need to help students recognize their weaknesses, identify strategies that help them overcome those weaknesses, and ask people for help by allowing them to implement those strategies.
For example, let’s say a student has an IEP because of a generalized anxiety disorder. In addition to ongoing skill development sessions, a mental health professional helps her identify triggers and symptoms. The student is triggered by life changes such as a new schedule or having too many large assignments due at once, and when this happens, she shuts down and does not complete her work, thus falling behind. To combat this, the professional suggests the student work with her teachers to break large assignments up into smaller assignments with multiple deadlines and asks the student to take the first step by talking to the teachers herself.
Self-advocacy is so important because it translates into career readiness and workplace skills. It becomes a skill students will use with their future professors or bosses.
Encourage teachers to create learning opportunities that reiterate everyone has troubles. Fostering open and honest discussions about emotions in the context of someone the students do not know, such as a character, can help them become comfortable with their own struggles. When I taught English, we would have class discussions about struggling characters in our books. If there was a character exhibiting atypical behavior, I’d ask the class why they thought the character acted this way. We would talk about how it is normal to feel overwhelmed by emotions at times and how people are complex, not inherently “good” or “bad.” I wanted students to know that exhibiting these behaviors should never make them feel inadequate or “less than normal.” It was also an opportunity to discuss when to seek help, using the character as a safe example.
Encourage teachers to create or get involved with Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Getting involved in a PLC allows teachers to brainstorm classroom management tactics and ways to support students with special needs, share strategies that are working, or discuss concerning trends they are noticing.
Encourage teachers to talk to their students’ case managers to better understand the circumstances around their needs. IEPs and 504 Plans are created based on students’ individual needs, so principals should encourage teachers to meet with students’ case managers to discuss why students need any accommodations or modifications. To touch on the earlier example, the teachers of the student who experiences anxiety should meet with her case manager to discuss the anxiety, her symptoms of anxiety, and why breaking large assignments up into smaller assignments with multiple deadlines works for her. Knowing this, the teacher can keep an eye on the student to see if she is overwhelmed. If the student seems frazzled, the teacher can privately check in on how the student is feeling. If the student self-advocates and says she is feeling overwhelmed by her workload and wants to use her IEP-mandated accommodation, they can work this out together.
However, blanket accommodations or modifications are not always in the student’s best interest. Accommodations and modifications in an IEP are legally protected and should never be withheld, but the “individualization” part of an IEP means each student in each classroom and each assignment should be looked at independently, and the student and teacher should work together to maximize growth opportunities. Knowing the circumstances behind a student’s needs will help them determine if the accommodation or modification is needed for each particular assignment. If the student needs the accommodation for every assignment, it is her right. However, offering the accommodation every time, without considering whether she really needs it or not, does not help her grow. In this particular example, if the teacher assigns a large assignment, but sees the student is doing well and she does not request the accommodation, is the accommodation appropriate?
Society sometimes talks about behavioral or mental health disorders as something curable, such as a cold or flu. Instead, we need to remind students that behavioral and mental health disorders are something students can successfully manage and learn to recognize as they work to ask for help. It is a process, and the first step is getting help.
Stephanie Taylor, EdS NCSP, is director of behavioral and mental health services and psychoeducational assessments at PresenceLearning, a telehealth network of live, online special education-related service providers.
Making It Work
Foster a destigmatized outlook on student mental health and make students feel more comfortable seeking help by:
- Creating meaningful conversations. Every interaction with a student is a teaching opportunity. Whether it is in class or the halls, remind students it’s OK to struggle, and there’s no such thing as being “perfect.”
- Getting involved. Instituting new procedures like telepractice can help alleviate the stigma associated with receiving help. Teachers should collaborate with each other and case managers to learn ways to best support students with mental health needs.
- Teaching students to self-advocate. Students who understand their weaknesses and what they need to manage them will be successful both in the classroom and post-graduation.