How to build a mental health-friendly culture for your students

Students say they feel frustrated when educators focus on crisis response rather than prevention.
By: | May 12, 2022

A substantial number of teens feel like their mental health concerns are not taken seriously by their parents or other caregivers. This persistent stigma is why many seek help from trusted teachers and educators at their schools, says Josh Packard, a sociologist and executive director of the Springtide Research Institute, which just released a guide, “Mental Health and Gen Z: What Educators Need to Know.”

The organization’s research shows that teachers want more guidance in supporting students to prevent emotional challenges from becoming severe. “Right now educators feel helpless when it comes to mental health,” Packard says. “They’re waiting for something to emerge or explode before they can put some of their training into effect and connect students to resources that can help them through the crisis.”

Students say they feel frustrated when educators focus on crisis response rather than promoting wellness. They also say mental health initiatives rarely focus on the causes of stress, such as academic and social pressures at school, says Springtide’s mental health guide, which was based on interviews with 3,000 young people ages 13-25.

Here are some other eye-opening numbers from the report:

  • 55% of students say they have experienced trauma
  • 29% say they are currently or have been medicated or hospitalized for mental health issues
  • Only 20% feel they belong at their school and that people know who they are
  • Among students who don’t seek help, 51% say they fear teachers or other school staff might treat them differently if they knew the student was meeting with a school counselor or therapist
  • 49% of students agree, “It would be important to me that a mental health counselor shares the same religious or spiritual beliefs as me.”
  • 39% of students agree, “The school mental health counselors/therapists do not share my race or ethnicity, so they might not understand me or the challenges I am having.”

The survey paid special attention to nonbinary students:

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  • 56% of nonbinary students say they feel lonely at school often or most of the time, compared to 38% of female-identifying and 32% of male-identifying students
  • 48% of nonbinary students agree, “My school helps people like me succeed,” compared to 71% of female-identifying and 75% of male-identifying students.
  • Half (51%) of nonbinary students agree, “Most adults at my school are openly supportive of me,” compared to 66% of female-identifying and 72% of male-identifying students.

Despite the troubling numbers, building a mental health-friendly culture in your school is not as daunting a task as it might sound. You and your team are likely already using some of the strategies that support students’ comfort and sense of purpose, Packard says. “This generation, they’ve been really clear that attendance does not equate to a sense of belonging,” he says. “Just because they show up doesn’t mean they feel seen.”

An easy first step is ensuring teachers know and use every one of their students’ preferred names, pronounce those names correctly, and greet each of their students daily. “It’s not like you have to radically transform what you’re doing in order to make a big impact,” Packard says.

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Students are also less likely to report feeling lonely when they have a meaningful interaction with a teacher in a typical week. Teachers should make extra efforts to reach out to “outliers,” or young people who are likely to feel left out of the school community—such as transfer students, English learners, students who are not able to participate in extracurricular activities, or students who participate in activities not offered by the school. Finally, educators should encourage students to connect with each other by training them in mental first aid and awareness.

Helping students find purpose

When it comes to a sense of purpose, students said much of the work they do feels only “transactional,” meaning they are completing assignments and projects simply to graduate or go to college. While Packard says schools often succeed in clearly setting those important expectations, students also want help finding a bigger purpose and how their aspirations will fit into the world of work. “A lot of times, students feel like participating in school clubs and getting good grades are ends in themselves—not because they are deeply connected to who students are and who they will become,” Packard says. “But this falls squarely inside of what schools are meant for—we can talk about what it means to be vocational, what it means to be a chemist, why a student might want to be a chemist.”

Encouraging autonomy also helps students develop a sense of purpose. Students ranked asking questions, trying new things, experiencing hardship and solving problems as the most important ways to find purpose, Packard says.