Teachers play a critical role in their students’ lives, and as the demands of education increase, they must have access to sufficient mental health resources to support their students’. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Tara Lindahl, PsyD, explains a new study and why addressing mental health challenges early on and fostering an inclusive and supportive learning environment can help their students.
Another school year is here, and to mark the occasion, Verywell Mind surveyed 1,000 middle and high school teachers in the U.S. for our Mental Health in the Classroom Study. Teachers reported on their experiences handling mental health issues, strategies that work, and the kind of resources they need to support their students even more.
The survey found that 81% say teachers feel responsible for their students’ mental health, and another 77% believe it’s also their duty to teach students about mental health and relevant self-care strategies.
The past few years have tested teachers’ resolve even further, leaving them trying to guide classrooms of kids through a global pandemic, the deleterious effects of social media, and a world that is increasingly complicated and often cruel.
“There is so much pressure put on teachers today. They are the educator, moral compass, sometimes parents, and always the adults in the room,” says Dr. Tara Lindahl, a licensed clinical psychologist and regional psychotherapy director at Mindpath Health in California. “With so many years of ‘unprecedented times,’ teachers now see how our children’s mental health may be affected. We must remember that this was not part of their training and that they may be feeling out of scope.”
Many schools offer mental health training to teachers
Just over 75% of teachers who took part in the survey reported that their school does offer mental health training for educators, but those working in private schools are more likely to have access at 82%. As a whole, 77% of surveyed educators have previously received training to incorporate mental health awareness and strategies in their teaching. Training rates are higher among teachers who are millennials or younger at 81% and 86% for private school teachers.
Dr. Kristen Niemczyk-Kistner, a social worker, is one of the mental health professionals facilitating training for teachers (and parents). Last year, she created and facilitated a pilot training program for staff at the middle school where she works. Niemczyk-Kistner then made weekly psycho-education lesson plans for the teachers to go over with students each Friday during an extended homeroom.
An ongoing battle for resources
Overall, millennial and younger teachers felt more responsible and equipped to discuss mental health with their students, suggesting a generational divide in our feelings about mental health. However, many teachers feel that they don’t have enough resources to properly care for students or avenues to point them towards.
As one participant explained, “We need to be adequately trained to not only spot, but to quickly intervene with students who need help, in providing a safe and comfortable space where students can share their thoughts and struggles and know that we can guide them to resources that will help them through their pain, with the promise that there is hope on the other side.”
This is especially critical given that 70% of teachers notice students dealing with poor mental health at least once a month, while 40% notice such issues weekly. 65% of teachers say that students are not getting enough mental health support.
How are teachers approaching mental health in their classrooms?
Doing something to help students, no matter how small it feels, can be impactful. “The benefit of being heard, validated, and acknowledged is immensely valuable,” says Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist. “Teachers can demonstrate that they are a safe resource for their students to turn to and can make themselves available during office hours or after class meetings to check in on students.”
The survey found that 81% of teachers integrate mental health awareness and strategies into their teaching. As in other areas, this number increased for teachers who were millennials or younger (86%) and for private school teachers (88%). This appears to be a recent shift, with 71% of teachers reporting that they’ve incorporated this work into their teaching within the last four years.
How teachers can protect their own mental health
Romanoff stresses how important it is to set realistic expectations for what you can do for your students as someone who only has a part-time role in their life. To this end, it can help to involve parents in watching out for and communicating about their children’s well-being, adds Ficken.
It’s important that teachers look after their own mental health. Lean on other teachers who understand your experience and can provide guidance.
“Teachers should remember that they are human and cannot be expected to solve every problem,” says Ficken. “Avoid placing excessive guilt on yourself and acknowledge that you are doing your best with available resources.”
Educators also don’t undergo the same level of training as mental health professionals and should keep this in mind as they try to help their students, adds Lindahl. They can offset this by being prepared as to where to direct them.
“Seek professional development, collaborate with school resources, focus on mental health education, set realistic boundaries, and prioritize self-care. Remember that you cannot do it all, but your efforts to create a supportive environment and advocate for students’ mental health are valuable,” says Ficken.