You’re not in it alone when it comes to helping students with mental health concerns.
When a child is struggling with mental health issues, their functioning at school is often an important indicator. As a teacher, you have the unique position of observing a child’s academic performance, regularity of attendance, day to day mood, interactions with peers and authority figures, and overall functioning in an environment full of social rules and expectations. You have your eye on many factors that indicate a child or adolescent’s well-being; and you also have the ability to see changes over the course of at least one school year. Depending on the size of your school and community, you may also have knowledge of the student’s family functioning and general life outside of the classroom.
For all of these reasons, teachers play an important role in connecting children with mental health resources when needed. Since you are responsible for many pupils, it’s helpful to know who is on the team at your – both in your school and in the community – so you are able to quickly and knowledgeably make referrals that connect your students to the care they need.
The Mental Health Team on Campus
Campuses vary greatly in size, resources, staffing, and community involvement; however one position that is generally available to all schools is a school counselor. The school counselor’s role includes providing academic and career guidance, and also providing support for social and emotional problems. While a school counselor is often limited in interventions they are able to provide around mental health concerns, they are trained and able to facilitate referrals to mental health professionals provided by the district or out in the community. In addition to a school counselor, many campuses or districts have a social worker and/or a psychologist on staff. These professionals are able to meet with students to provide support; consult with administrators, teachers, and parents; implement behavior management skills for positive social and classroom interactions; provide crisis intervention; and may be able to provide counseling and psychological testing.
For on-campus support, another helpful resource in many schools is the presence of an outside social service agency with staff embedded in the school. This may come in the form of organizations such as Communities in Schools or City Year, which places caring adults who are often social workers, social service professionals, and/or AmeriCorps members onto campuses to support at-risk students. These agencies provide case management services plus on-campus academic and social support, and work toward building connections between school, family, and community resources to support students in need.
The Mental Health Team in the Community
Outside of the school, additional resources exist in the community to which you can refer parents and caregivers when you (or they) are concerned with a student’s mental well-being. Depending on the size of your town or city, the number of accessible and affordable options will vary greatly. It can be difficult to keep a pulse on the agencies and resources that support children and families. You may find it beneficial to attend a local community resource fair. It’s a great way to become more familiar with public, non-profit, and faith-based service providers.
Of course, you should always feel comfortable referring families to the student’s pediatrician when there are concerns. A pediatrician can provide a physical exam to rule out medical conditions and will help the family better utilize the healthcare system, including insurance options, to identify appropriate mental health resources.
As you become more familiar with the community of support that wraps around your students, you may recognize a need for additional awareness and training on the topic of mental health in the classroom. Agencies such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) provide information and resources specifically for educators. NAMI offers a one hour presentation called Ending the Silence for School Staff, which focuses on “warning signs, facts and statistics, how to approach students and how to work with families,” and DHHS has an online resource guide with warning signs and crisis support information.
Lastly, two numbers that all educators should have saved and easily accessible are:
Your state’s hotline number for child protective services for suspected child abuse and neglect; and
The national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
As a teacher, you work hard to educate students and prepare them for the milestones ahead. When you are able to identify warning signs and recognize that a child or adolescent needs more support, you increase your impact by growing the team that works to promote that student’s wellbeing. A team approach – consisting of families, healthcare professionals, mental health providers, educators, and social-emotional support sources – can work together to change lives and trajectories during these formative years.
Venée M. Hummel, LCSW
Venée M. Hummel, LCSW is a clinical social worker and clinician at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Endeavors in Killeen, Texas, and an instructor at the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She provides clinical services to veterans and military-connected family members, with a specialty focus on evidence-based treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, and the impact of deployments on children, couples, and the entire family. She previously completed a fellowship in combat trauma research, assessment, and intervention at theSTRONG STAR Research Consortium and Consortium to Alleviate PTSD at Fort Hood, Texas. Ms. Hummel is also the proud daughter of a US Army soldier with over 30 years of active duty service, and she is honored to dedicate her career to giving back to the community that helped raise her.
The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.