How teachers can be even better allies during mental health crisis

Student leaders were asked: “What is one thing you want your teachers to know about your personal experience in school, online and with peers?” 

Students trust their teachers as allies in creating a sense of belonging at school but want educators to know more about the social-emotional ordeals behind the mental health crisis that young people are trying to navigate.

One of the biggest challenges is social media, which is worsening feelings of “loneliness” and “inadequacy,” according to a survey by the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, which advocates for student health and safety.

We heard from students that they lack agency to deal with difficult circumstances and are looking toward the trusted adults in their life to support them,” says Crystal Garrant, chief program officer at Sandy Hook Promise.

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“It’s critical to understand that students today feel that social media is exacerbating feelings of isolation, leading to a lack of a sense of connection with one another,” Garrant adds. “Youth need the help of trusted adults to know how to use social media in ways that are helpful and healthy, and when to put boundaries in place.”

What students want teachers to know about mental health

About two dozen of the organization’s student leaders were asked: “What is one thing you want your teachers to know about your personal experience in school, online and with peers?” Their answer? Adults are not validating the seriousness of the K12 mental health crisis.

“The intensity of students’ stress, anxiety, and the complexity of their social interactions is often overlooked, dismissed, and invalidated,” one high school student told Sandy Hook Promise. “The reality is that many students lack a sense of agency when dealing with challenging circumstances, yet are still being expected to pour an enormous amount of time into academics and community engagement.”

Teens struggle to balance competing demands and don’t have enough time to “rest and recharge.” The resulting sense of stress and frustration is magnified when teachers and other adults don’t acknowledge what youths are experiencing, the student added.

Young people also appear to feel trapped online, reporting that they are now seeking stronger in-person connections. “With growing usage of social media, and post-pandemic changes to the school environment, it’s so easy to feel isolated,” another student shared. “A lot of experiences have become less interactive in the name of efficiency, and it is difficult not to compare lives over social media, which leads to negative feelings like loneliness and inadequacy.”

Students also said they struggle to connect with peers and want teachers to help facilitate social interactions. But schools are making progress. “Youth have told us that the mental health days that are offered by some school districts are helpful in the event that they need a day to tend to their emotional and mental health,” Garrant notes.

Here are some direct quotes from the survey describing the ways teachers can provide students with even more support as the mental health crisis persists:

  • “Facilitate forming new social connections; not just, for example, by assigning group work and facilitating classroom conversations but also encouraging students who have just met each other to get to know each other better more personally and really find meaningful connections.”
  • “Introducing me to new people or helping me be more open.”
  • “Helps us to get out of our shell and encourage the students to talk to others.”
  • “It is important that teachers facilitate inclusive and diverse group activities that encourage interaction across different social circles. Teachers and trusted adults can support students in leading interest-based clubs, extracurricular activities, and school unity efforts which provide a shared space for students to meet their peers and foster a sense of belonging.”
  • “To support in fostering connections with peers, trusted adults should familiarize themselves with the diverse array of communities accessible to students within the school, including religious groups, LGBTQ+ associations, and cultural clubs.”

“By creating structured peer-to-peer and adult connection opportunities during the school day,” Garrant concludes, “the classroom can become a lab to safely practice life skills that are beneficial for mental health and social connection, and facilitate wellbeing.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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