With age comes wisdom, or at least perspective. You learn that disappointment and loss are facts of life. You understand that when it comes to hurt and emotional pain, no feeling, overwhelming as it may be, lasts forever.
But “This too shall pass” is hard enough for many adults to grasp, let alone students without the perspective and life experience to even begin to accept that truth. It’s important that we stay alert to the signs of problems that are too big for our students to handle on their own.
“Mental health is all too often one of the last things that we pay attention to, even though we know how immensely important it is,” says David Anderson, senior director, ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center, Child Mind Institute.
We don’t want to contemplate it, but suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24. Ninety percent of children and adolescents who die of suicide have an underlying mental health disorder. Many of these—including post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety, bipolar disorder and depression—go undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. That means they receive no therapy, counseling or medication.
As many as 1 in 5 adolescents ages 13 to 18 has a mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But school districts have cut back on the very people who play an important role in helping these students: counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists. Counselors on average are responsible for 500 students each; for school nurses and psychologists, it’s 1,100 and 1,400, respectively.
Some districts are resorting to outsourcing these important positions. But outsourcing doesn’t allow for the deep connections that are most helpful when students are in distress.
Most of the students who have mental health disorders, thankfully, will not take their own lives. But of course, there is other fallout. When a young person is struggling with a mental health issue, it’s harder for an educator to reach him, and it is harder for her to learn. “Kids who suffer from mental health disorders … inevitably miss out on opportunities for learning and building relationships,” Anderson says.
Some students suffer due to bullying, a particularly prevalent threat for LGBT students. They are sometimes so desperate to stop the harassment that they end their lives. Initiatives such as The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people between 13 and 24, provides helpful resources.
Spotty attendance is often a sign that students are in trouble. Rose J. Russo-Gleicher, an adjunct professor of human services at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, has 10 recommendations for dealing with absences, including contacting students who are absent on the first day of class and again very soon after.
In a perfect (or how about just a better?) world, we would do whatever it took to increase students’ access to mental health services. This would lead to a tenfold increase in treatment for mental health or substance abuse, the Child Mind Institute says.
The institute has guides on its website to help educators identify anxiety and other issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers information has information on suicide prevention and mental health to help educators and parents understand the difference between behaving badly and showing signs of a mental disorder. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) also provides helpful resources.
But until we get what we really need (and even after we do), we all can take advantage of every opportunity to connect with our students and let them know we’re there for them. Often, that is precisely what they need.