Mental Health in the Classroom: Educators as the 'First Responders'

Your students spend the better part of each weekday in your classroom or office, and you play a critical role in their health and well-being—after all, a lot comes up during the day! As an independent school teacher, adviser, coach, dean, or nurse, you may have been the first to learn of a student’s worries, sadness, self-injury, or even suicidal thoughts. While you're ideally part of a multidisciplinary school team that includes professional counselors and administrators, you are one of the people who is generally “on the ground.”
Some of the most common issues you may have witnessed as “first responders” include relationship disappointments or conflicts, family issues (such as death, divorce, parent-child issues, parent substance use, or mental health problems), test or performance anxiety, general academic stress, procrastination, panic attacks, social isolation, mild to severe depression, cutting and other forms of self-injury, and suicidal thoughts, plans, and/or action.
In the event you find yourself with a student in distress, here are a few reminders to help guide you.
It’s a compliment when a student confides in you. Many teenagers are reluctant to share their private thoughts, especially troubling ones, with adults. If a student opens up to you, it’s a sign of trust, respect, admiration—and a sense of hope that you may be able to help. Receiving crucial information from a student about their emotional well-being is also a significant responsibility that carries inherent risk; it can feel burdensome, even unwelcome. You and your colleagues likely represent a continuum of comfort with the kinds of informal “triage” and counseling some students need and request. It is OK, and advisable, to know your comfort zone and to aim to stay within it.
You have life experience…whether you are 57 or 24. For this reason, students view you as an “expert,” not just in your subject area, but in life. You may know you’re not, but you can draw on your own life experience to respond supportively in the moment. And, beyond that, you can and should draw on what I call the “continuum of intervention.”
There is always something you can do. When in doubt, keep it simple. Let’s look at the first stop on the intervention continuum. In the case of a distressed student, remember that even if you have absolutely no knowledge of teen romance/depression/anxiety, you can listen. For a subset of students, the conversation with you may be the first time a caring adult has sat and carefully, patiently listened.
You know your students. When you’ve seen them in your classroom, at lunchtime, or in a soccer game, you’ve accumulated observations and gotten to know something about them. You also have more life experience than your students. If the concern is mild, you may be able to offer solid advice, and it’s OK to do so. If it’s anything more than mild, you should think about the next steps, and how and where to pull in an adult who can pick up the ball.
You don’t have to keep secrets, even if your student insists that you do. Unless it is a mild issue (an argument with a friend or disappointment over a quiz grade), you should not be the only adult in the child’s life who knows something is troubling them. Interestingly, some students may be relieved when you offer to reach out to their parents. Others will be horrified, and in these cases, you might consider discussing the matter with a colleague who has more training in student health, as well as more knowledge of school policy and legal requirements. You can explain to the student that you have to alert someone else, and sometimes you can give the student a choice about who it will be.
You don’t have to fly solo. Reach out to a colleague, generally a school counselor or dean, who has the background and training and can take on the responsibility. In fact, this is the step I would recommend in 80 percent of cases. Depending on the student concern, you can mention it to a team or in a one-to-one meeting with a designated colleague within a few days, or you can immediately alert all student affairs parties, who contact a student’s parents.
You can get to know your school’s system and process regarding student mental health and well-being. This reminder is especially important for new school personnel. Every school is different, though there are some common structures at independent school that include:
  • School counselor or psychologist. In larger schools and boarding schools, there is often a counseling center that is part of, or connected to, the school’s health service. There are some schools that do not have school counselors. In these cases, it is generally the dean of students, school nurse, or assistant head of school who will serve as the point person.
  • Dean of students. The nature of this position, the professional backgrounds, and levels of experience of these administrators vary tremendously across schools. Some are classroom teachers with modest experience who have taken on the role because they are skilled at working with students and handling complex situations, while others are trained counselors or psychologists who have moved into this administrative role, sometimes from within the same school.
  • School nurse. All nurses generally have had at least some exposure to mental health issues during their training, if limited to an eight-week clinical rotation. Many nurses, especially in pediatrics, are well-versed in psychosomatics, the headaches, stomach aches, and general malaise that can come over some students in response to anxiety or other emotional distress. In cases where a student presents a physical complaint, it is prudent to loop the nurse in.
Some schools also have weekly, biweekly, or monthly student affairs or student wellness meetings that interested faculty can attend. Generally speaking, these team meetings save time, eliminate redundant conversations, and provide an opportunity for both brainstorming and problem-solving. They also bring a blend of perspectives on clinical care, school policy, ethics, legalities, and issues relating to both an individual student and the school community as a whole. If your school does not have such a team, think about suggesting it form one!
Deborah Offner
Deborah Offner

Deborah Offner is a clinical psychologist/school consultant.


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