If you teach middle or high school, chances are you’ve had at least one student that you’ve been concerned about this year—the kind of kid that you pull aside after class to talk about what’s going on.
As teachers, our own mental health has suffered since COVID-19 and the resulting stress and teacher shortages. It’s no surprise that many of our students are struggling too.
“Obviously, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on mental health,” says Erin McClintock, former EVERFI Vice President of Community Engagement, Impact, and Education. “Even before the pandemic, we had what many would consider a mental health crisis, and it has only been exacerbated.”
Mental wellness matters.
There is a growing need for mental health support for youth. From anxiety to depression—which can be compounded by issues like bullying, trauma, and lack of access to basic needs—20 percent of children and adolescents will experience a mental health concern during their school years.
This year, that need is even more pressing. The effects of the pandemic are still lingering, especially for youths who missed out on formative experiences, alongside social isolation. A recent survey found that in 2020 the proportion of teens ages 11 to 17 who searched for help with their mental health was up 9 percent.
“Some students are doing well,” McClintock says, “but for others, it’s been a real problem.” Now that we’re seeing the impact of the pandemic, how can we strengthen students’ mental health and resilience? We talked with two teachers who already emphasized mental health in their classrooms about what they’re doing this year.
Make mental health part of the daily check-in.
“Teachers are in an important position to support teens’ mental health,” says McClintock. It can be as simple as helping students see the connection between their mental health and academics.
At Ohio Virtual Academy, eighth grade math teacher Kimberly Palocsay uses EVERFI’s free online curriculum Understanding Mental Wellness, previously known as Mental Wellness Basics, to check in with her students and give them the language they need to discuss mental health. The curriculum consists of six self-paced activities that take about 15 minutes each. Palocsay uses the program’s framework as a tool for talking about mental health for an entire semester. And she predicts her students will use it for long after too.
After the Understanding Mental Wellness curriculum, Palocsay says her students are able to think more critically about their feelings and actions. The curriculum gives her vocabulary to use when checking in with her students. “Once kids can name something, it becomes easier to understand and relate to,” Palocsay says. “And for mental health, this can be a really important way to reduce stigma.”
Start with self-awareness.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), self-awareness is one of the core social-emotional competencies that students need in order to succeed. Self-awareness is critical for students to recognize when they’re struggling as well as identifying the tools necessary to get through it. After Understanding Mental Wellness, Palocsay noticed her students were quick to name their own feelings and experiences. From there, she was able to help them enhance their self-awareness by talking through the impact of their actions and decisions on their overall well-being. For example, if they didn’t get enough sleep the night before, they might feel grumpy and snap at a friend.
Perspective-taking is another critical skill.
Understanding Mental Wellness also helped Palocsay talk about perspective-taking, an important social awareness competition. Teenagers can find it difficult to understand that others have the same feelings and responses they do. Just the awareness that others are going through the same thing—for instance, that parents may also be facing stressors—is helpful. “That was the biggest thing (my students) came back to me with. They started having awareness of why their parents or others did what they did,” she shared.
Teens can—and will—develop self-care strategies that work for them.
Even though her students have completed the program, Palocsay continues to embed the lessons learned from Understanding Mental Wellness. She regularly encourages her students to talk about how their schedules and technology impact them and how they plan their days to get enough food and sleep. When a student figure out how to use even simple strategies, like setting a reminder to go to bed on time, it has a ripple effect.
These lessons help students practice mindfulness and stay present. For example, when student in Palocsay’s class said he was too anxious to think about math, she encouraged him to try to let math take up the space he was using for worrying for a few minutes. This year, make coping strategies an everyday thing by posting the strategies in a place where students can access them, whether it’s your online learning platform or in students’ daily agenda. That keeps the language consistent and reminds students that they have skills they can use to feel better.
Starting a conversation about mental health can empower students now and in the future.
Giving students a way to talk about mental wellness can help bring it into everyday discussions. Tracy Bonebrake-Miller, a tenth grade teacher at Waynesboro High School in Pennsylvania, used Understanding Mental Wellness both online during the height of the pandemic and in person. She finds the content to be more relevant than ever. In Bonebrake-Miller’s class, students process what they learned online through class discussions. The hope is that talking about mental wellness at school will spill over into the home.
Kids likely may not talk about traditional academics over the dinner table, says Palocsay, but they may share what they learned and thought about in Understanding Mental Wellness and how it relates to them. Even after the effects of the pandemic have subsided, students will need to have a bank of mental wellness skills. The goal of starting with this online program is to ultimately give students a way to think and talk about mental wellness so they can build strategies to use now and in the future.
In Understanding Mental Wellness, a new lesson on “Creating a Supportive Mental Health Plan” teaches students to understand how mental health impacts them and others.
Students will leave this course with self-help strategies and an improved understanding of how to identify and minimize risks for risking mental health while feeling empowered to act as an advocate for themselves and others.