5 ways schools can reduce the stigma of mental illness

Educators can start thoughtful conversations about a serious but hidden issue
By: | September 20, 2018

About 64 percent of youth with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment. That means that people under 18 who are most at risk of suicidal thoughts or of difficulty in school and in relationships don’t receive the treatment they need.

There were 13 suicides in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers in 2016. Fishers’ Hamilton Southeastern Schools is a district of 21 schools and more than 21,000 students. With students outnumbering traditional guidance counselors by 700 to 1, the schools couldn’t meet the needs of struggling students.

In 2016, the district passed a referendum to provide mental health services to its 21 schools. For the 2017-18 school year, 12 licensed therapists spent at least 2 1/2 days per week at each school to provide mental health counseling to students and families.

As a result, in one school year, the number of students who received mental health services increased by more than 1,000 percent. Our data showed that nearly 50 percent of diagnoses treated were anxiety/stress-related disorders.

The outcomes speak for themselves: 55 percent of students who received services showed an improvement in GPA as well as in math and reading scores.

The stigmas surrounding mental health issues often make students reluctant to seek help. Following are five ways that school districts, regardless of size, can reduce those stigmas.

1. Encourage thoughtful conversations about mental health

In recent years, we’ve seen more students talking about hurting themselves. The issue isn’t new, but our accommodating atmosphere is. We strive to make mental health a more common discussion so students feel comfortable sharing this information. We see this as a positive outcome of our goal to reduce the stigma of mental distress in school, as fewer students are suffering in silence.

2. Introduce mindfulness

Integrating mindfulness in the classroom is a preventative measure for mental health issues. More than 30 of our teachers are now trained to teach mindfulness in the classroom. Though research on the effects of mindfulness on children is just beginning, we see how regular mindfulness practice helps our students understand that they have a choice in how they respond to stimuli.

3. Involve community experts

Mental health issues are like any other health problem. They require trained professionals for diagnosis and treatment. We’ve been intentional about involving local professionals in our efforts, and many providers are eager to help.

4. Involve parents

Many students say that the adults in their lives don’t understand the reality of depression and other mental health problems. We recognize the need to educate the entire family. Each year, Fishers High School hosts A Night of Hope for families. In separate sessions, parents and teens discuss current trends in youth mental health. More than 400 families attend the event to talk candidly about mental health.

5. Clarify every step of the way

What is obvious to some may not be so clear to others. Our Stigma Free HSE student club has a licensed therapist available at every meeting, but we make it clear that these are not support group meetings and aren’t intended to be. No school event or club can replace traditional counseling or therapy with a licensed mental health professional.

We know that early intervention is key to helping those struggling with mental illness and that, oftentimes, the stigma and misunderstandings about treatment keep people from reaching out for help. Real students struggle with real problems, and reducing the stigma is possible with the right approach.

Brooke Lawson is the mental health coordinator at Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indiana.