Responding to Student Mental Health Issues | Part 2

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Recognizing & Responding to Student Mental Health Issues: Part Two

In the past decade, student mental health issues and mental illness have both become topics of concern and discussion in and outside of schools across the country. As discussed in the first part of this article series, being able to identify signs, symptoms, and risk factors of mental health issues in youth is a critical first step in responding to student mental health issues. Part two examines the impact of student mental health issues on school performance and how parents, teachers, and administrators can adequately deal with these issues on a single-student and school-wide basis.

How Student Mental Health Issues Affect Learning

Students experiencing mental health issues often also experience accompanying difficulties in school performance. These can manifest in a variety of ways, including poor attendance records, low test scores, failing grades, frequent behavioral interventions, and more.[1]

Additionally, “secondary school students who suffer from mental illness are more likely to earn failing grades across all subjects and are retained at grade level more often than youth with disabilities as a whole.”[2] As a result, only slightly more than 30 percent of students with a serious mental illness continue on to postsecondary education.[3]
However, proactive policies and treatment programs specifically designed to assist students with mental health issues have been proven effective in helping these students improve and succeed in school. A 2008 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study of systems of care for youth with mental illness found that “students’ attendance and grades improved with care, while expulsions and suspensions fell by 44 percent.”[4]
With this evidence of the impact that mental illness has on school performance and the proven effectiveness of treatment programs, it’s crucial to recognize how parents, teachers, and administrators can partner together to help students with mental health issues succeed.

How Parents Can Help with Their Students’ Mental Health Issues

As a parent, you are likely one of the people who knows your child best. Thus, if you believe your child may be struggling with a mental illness, it’s critical to take several steps. “Early identification, accurate diagnosis, and effective treatment of mental health or substance use conditions in school-aged young people can alleviate enormous suffering and heartbreak and help young people to benefit from their education and to lead productive lives.”[5]
First, talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns and ask for a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in children and adolescent mental illnesses.[6] These professionals may recommend a variety of treatments, such as psychotherapy and medication. Be sure to follow any instructions closely and understand that mental health treatment is not an instant-fix—it’s often a long-term process that requires partnerships with everyone in your child’s life.
Second, schedule an appointment with your child’s teacher, counselor, and principal. This is especially important if your child’s mental illness is impacting their performance in school, whether through behavioral issues, anxiety, or something else. During this meeting, you should discuss your child’s specific mental health issues, any questions or concerns you may have, and how you can partner with these educators to help your child cope with and overcome their illness.[7]
Third, make supporting your student’s mental health needs a family-wide priority. Involve others—including your spouse, your child’s siblings, and others who will be interacting with your child on a regular basis—in discussions and learning opportunities about your child’s mental illness. “You may find that you deal with challenges and obstacles differently than them, but you should find ways to combine strengths to overcome any weaknesses. Be ready to compromise, listen and be open to new ideas.”[8]

What Teachers Can Do to Support Students’ Mental Health Needs

As individuals who regularly observe and interact with students, without the often-rose-colored lens of parenthood, teachers are often one of the first individuals to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health issues in students.[9]
Aside from being trained and comfortable with recognizing student behaviors that could be indicative of a mental illness and knowing the proper protocol for reporting their concerns, there are a number of steps that teachers can take to support students’ mental health needs in the classroom.

    •Promote social and emotional competency and build resilience.
    •Help ensure a positive, safe school environment.
    •Teach and reinforce positive behaviors and decision-making.
    •Encourage helping others.
    •Encourage good physical health.
    • •Help ensure access to school-based mental health supports.


Researchers have found that, “[w]ith a positive, caring ethos in place the school can create a safer and more productive learning environment and one that is more facilitative and therapeutic for pupils, thereby preventing the development of mental health problems.”[11]

What Administrators and Counselors Can Do to Respond to Student Mental Health Issues

One of the most impactful ways that administrators and counselors can support students’ mental health needs is through the development of proactive mental health programs within the school. “School-based and school-linked programs have been developed for purposes of early intervention, crisis intervention and prevention, treatment, and promotion of positive social and emotional development. And, available research suggests that for some youngsters schools are the main providers of mental health services.”[12]
When creating and evaluating a comprehensive student mental health program for schools, it is important to note that effective programs:

    • Promote the healthy social and emotional development of all children and youth.
    • Recognize when young people are at risk for or are experiencing mental health problems.
    • • Identify how to intervene early and appropriately when there are problems.


One of the best ways to assess both the current mental health environment of a school and the effectiveness of any in-place student mental health programs is through anonymous evaluations. Student surveys, as well as surveys of parents and teachers, are helpful in providing data-based measurements of:

    • Students at home and in the community
    • Student alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use
    • Student mental health
    • School climate
    • Other student behaviors such as:
    o Violence
    o Bullying
    o Absenteeism and suspension

The Importance of Adequately Responding to Student Mental Health Issues in Schools

Clearly, student mental health and mental illness are issues that will only continue to grow in importance and magnitude in schools across the nation. But “advancing mental health in schools is about much more than expanding services and creating full-service schools. It is about establishing comprehensive, multifaceted approaches that help ensure schools are caring and supportive places that maximize learning and well-being and strengthen students, families, schools, and neighborhoods.”[14]

[1]DeSocio, J. and Hootman, J. (2004). Children’s mental health and school success. The Journal of School Nursing 20(4):189-196

[2]Wagner, M. and Cameto, R. (2004). The Characteristics, Experiences, and Outcomes of Youth with Emotional Disturbances. A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 3(2):1-7.

[3]United States Government Accountability Office. (June 2008). Young Adults with Serious Mental Illness; Report to Congressional Requesters GAO Report Number GAO-08-678. Washington, D.C.

[4]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). Helping Youth Thrive in the Community. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.

[5]“Position Statement 41: Early Identification of Mental Health Issues in Young People.” Mental Health America. Retrieved from on July 27, 2016.

[6]“Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from on July 28, 2016.

[7]“Problems at School.” Association for Children’s Mental Health: Michigan. Retrieved from on July 28, 2016.

[8]“Learning to Help Your Child and Your Family.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from” target=”_blank”> on July 28, 2016.

[9]“Talk About Mental Health: For Educators.” MentalHealth.Gov. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved from on July 29, 2016.


[11]Hornby, G. & Atkinson, M. (2010). A Framework for Promoting Mental Health in School. Pastoral Care in Education: An International Journal of Personal, Social and Emotional Development, 21:2, 3-9.

[12]“Mental Health in Schools: An Overview.” School Mental Health Project, UCLA. Center for Mental Health in Schools. Retrieved from on July 29, 2016.

[13]“Talk About Mental Health: For Educators.” MentalHealth.Gov. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Retrieved from on July 29, 2016.

[14]“Mental Health in Schools: An Overview.” School Mental Health Project, UCLA. Center for Mental Health in Schools. Retrieved from on July 29, 2016.

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