Supporting Mental Health in Schools
Nia was ready to explode. She was working on a group project, and it was all falling apart. She disagreed with the bossy boy across from her, the poster looked lame, and her group had just vetoed her favorite suggestion. She felt her body tensing up, her jaw locking in place, and her face turning bright red.
Then, she took a deep breath.
Her teacher had recently started using Yoga Ed.’s yoga lesson plans, and she remembered their conversation last week about what anger feels like in your body. She was very familiar with that feeling, but not with any solutions. So even though she felt silly, she tried an Ocean Breath. In through your nose, out through your mouth. She felt just a tiny bit calmer, so she took another breath. Then she went back to poster negotiations.
After a coordinated effort between teacher, family, counselor, and peers, Nia had recently been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Yoga Ed. was part of the plan that helped Nia gain control over her feelings and her school day.
The Current State of Mental Health in Schools
A mental health disorder is a condition that disrupts a person’s mood, thought or behavior, often for an extended period of time. 43.8 million adults in the United States experience mental illness each year, yet 60% of adults with a mental illness didn’t receive mental health services in the previous 365 days (NAMI, 2018). As a nation, we witnessed a 51 percent increase in the combined death rate from drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, or suicide between 2005 and 2016. The increased mortality from these causes has contributed to a decline in the average life expectancy at birth in the United States for two straight years (Commonwealth Fund, 2018).
Mental health has become a huge concern among adults, but maybe we are addressing the issue too late.
There are more than 50 million public school students in the U.S., and as many as 1 in 5 show signs of a mental health disorder (NAMI, 2018). In fact, 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24 (NAMI, 2018). In both children and adolescents, signs of a mental health disorder include dramatic changes in sleeping or eating patterns, excess worry or anxiety, nightmares, aggression, temper tantrums, and being unable to cope with daily activities at home or at school.
Nearly 80% of students with mental health disorders will not receive treatment of any kind during their school careers (Kataoka, 2002). These students are deprived of the care they need to fully thrive within a school environment and will likely grow up without the necessary coping skills or strategies to improve their social and emotional health.
The Educational Impact
The emotional and behavioral effects of mental health issues cannot be overstated and are often heightened as students interact with their school systems. Attention, mood, and conduct problems are interpreted many times as defiance rather than symptoms of a disorder. These same symptoms can lead to student feelings of anxiety and frustration in the classroom that harm their academic achievement, critical thinking, and social connection.
If students are emotionally dysregulated, it is extremely difficult for them to process and retain new information. Emotion drives attention, which in turn drives learning. It is shocking, but in a way unsurprising, that 37% of students with a mental health condition drop out of school, which is the highest dropout rate of any disability group (NAMI, 2018).
Like Teacher, Like Student
Students aren’t the only people in the school building feeling the stress. Teaching is consistently listed in the top 5 most stressful professions in the world. By neglecting their own needs in favor of the dozens of other priorities thrown their way each school day, teachers are burning themselves out and experiencing many of the symptoms they are told to look for in their own students. Issues with teacher retention, attendance, and morale harm student learning outcomes in a clear and direct way.
In a recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers, 58% of educators said their mental health was “not good” for seven or more of the previous 30 days. A similar survey in 2015 found just 34% of respondents felt the same (Toppo, 2017). The problem is getting worse, and students are feeling the impact.
Megan Plagman, a school social worker and a trainer for Yoga Ed., says schools are starting to discuss mental health, but there is still a lot of room for growth. “It’s difficult to balance asking teachers to do their job and also recognize and accommodate mental health concerns of their students. I think social-emotional learning is a big step in the right direction, but I also hope that teachers are listening during those lessons,” because they need to remember and internalize the same set of skills. “Teachers shouldn’t have to diagnose and treat mental health concerns in the classroom,” she says, “but they can be a caring adult in the life of a child who is struggling. Giving teachers time to build relationships with students, to develop trust, and to practice compassion should be valued.”
During the School Day
Mental health needs to be addressed at school through both curriculum and policy. Childhood and adolescence are critical times to be discussing and supporting mental health. Normalizing self-awareness and self-care should happen early and often in classrooms across the country.
Students spend up to 10 hours a day in a school building, and many schools are prioritizing the creation of safe, caring environments where all students are loved, valued, and seen. Recent social-emotional learning (SEL) initiatives by major districts have resulted in a reduction in the number of discipline referrals and a rise in positive student interactions and classroom engagement. By teaching specific healthy mindsets, SEL programming can give students the attitudes and skills they need to live their best lives at school or at home.
Many schools have found that dedicating time to yoga and mindfulness classes is an impactful way to make sure there is space for this work during the school day. Yoga Ed.’s lesson plans incorporate a time for discussion around a health and wellness topic, as well as games and partner poses that build collaboration and communication skills.
The results from recent research into yoga are overwhelmingly positive, suggesting that yoga helps improve a wide variety of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Jeter et al., 2015). A 2003 study of Yoga Ed. classes at the Accelerated School showed that participation in Yoga Ed. classes improved self-esteem, or students’ improve their attitudes toward themselves. After one year of participation, student agreement with self-esteem questions was significantly greater, with a 20% increase in students feeling good about themselves (Slovacek, 2003).
These programs often provide a common vocabulary for staff, students, and families around feelings, relationships, and problem-solving skills. Bringing these discussions to the forefront of a busy school day can help teachers and other adults in the building detect any early warning signs from students, such as Nia’s symptoms in the cafeteria.
Support with School Policy
Other school policies can also make or break mental health efforts. Schools’ investment in vital personnel such as school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists can have a profound effect on the access students have to professionals that can meet their needs. Right now, on average, every school counselor has nearly 500 students, and many schools have to share nursing, social work, and psychology staff.
Teachers typically have no formal mental health training, so professional development programs such as Yoga Ed.’s can provide important exposure to current brain science and trauma-informed best practices. Both administrators and teachers need to speak the language of mental health for the response to be effective.
Mental health issues are complex and require a comprehensive system of education and support from all parts of a school building. Administrators have the power to prioritize these initiatives for their students and staff, and teachers can integrate this into their classrooms. Activities and practices that support mental health, such as yoga and mindfulness, are vital components of a successful mental health initiative.
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Hayes, S.L., Radley, D.C., & McCarthy, D. (2018). States of Despair: A Closer Look at Rising State Death Rates from Drugs, Alcohol, and Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2018/states-despair-closer-look-rising-state-death-rates-drugs-alcohol-and-suicide
Jeter, P.E., Slutsky, J., Singh, N., Khalsa, S.B. (2015). Yoga as a Therapeutic Intervention: A Bibliometric Analysis of Published Research Studies from 1967 to 2013. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 21(10): 586–592. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4605382/
Kataoka, S.H., Zhang, L., & Wells, K.B. (2002). Unmet need for mental health care among U.S. children. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(9): 1548-55. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12202276
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2018) Mental Health By the Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers
Slovacek, S.P., Tucker, S.A., & Pantoja, L. (2003). Study of the Yoga Ed. program at the Accelerated School. Los Angeles, CA: Program Evaluation & Research Collaborative, Charter College of Education.
Toppo, G. (2018). Survey: Teachers’ mental health declining amid job stress. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/10/30/survey-teachers-mental-health-declining-amid-job-stress/811577001/