One in five US children ages 13-18 experiences a mental illness like depression or anxiety. The stress of student life—testing, fitting in, dealing with bullying, or going through a breakup—may amplify mental illness and can even lead to a mental health crisis. A student’s mental health can affect their ability to handle relationships and everyday responsibilities like schoolwork. Teachers can be the first line of defense against a crisis and are a true lifeline for a student in need of help.
Recognize the Warning Signs of a Mental Health Crisis
Many symptoms of a mental health crisis can look similar to normal parts of development, like withdrawing from family to spend more time with friends. However, if a student withdraws from everyone or becomes extremely private for an extended period of time, there may be cause for concern. Here are some warning signs to look for by age group.
- Younger Students
- physical illness, complaints of headaches or stomachaches
- asking to go home or not wanting to go to school
- major changes in behavior—cooperative and engaged before, now irritable or lashing out
- Older Students
- drastic changes in appearance or social group
- extreme mood swings, verbal threats about hurting themselves or others
- not participating in, enjoying, or attending things they used to—class, sports, theatre, art, band, etc.
Keep in mind that not every student exhibiting unusual behavior is in crisis. Some may just be having a bad day. But when bad days add up, or unfamiliar behaviors continue, it’s crucial to have an honest conversation.
How to Talk to a Student
Having a conversation with your student may seem a little scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are a few steps to guide you through it. These should only be used with high school and some middle school students (depending on their level of comprehension). For elementary and younger middle school students, let parents or legal guardians know about your concerns.
- Inform the school nurse or counselor of the change in behavior and let them know that you plan to talk to the student. Keep them informed as the situation progresses.
- Be honest but factual. State the behaviors you see. Use statements like “I noticed you’re turning in incomplete homework” or “You don’t participate in class like you used to” to show the student you recognize the change in their behavior and are concerned.
- Don’t promise to keep what they say a secret. You have to share your conversation with specific individuals if the student mentions suicide or abuse. Check with your school administration for the rules on reporting.
- Once you have an idea of what might be going on, let the student know that you’d like to tell their counselor and/or the nurse so they can follow up with the student’s family or legal guardians.
Want more information or support? Attend a Youth Mental Health First Aid training, an eight-hour interactive course about how to help someone who may be in crisis or showing signs of mental illness. Ask your principal to offer it as part of your school’s professional development. Trainings are free for all district employees and school resource officers, with continuing education units and continuing professional education hours available. Learn more at www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/cs/take-a-course/find-a-course/
Sherry Blyth, LCSW, is the director of crisis services, and Laura Hernandez Gold, LCSW-S, is the prevention services program manager at Austin Travis County Integral Care.
ATPE Member Legal Services says:
Getting personally involved with a struggling student can be the first step toward an inappropriate relationship. But despite such warnings, we know that when educators see students in need, their first instinct is to intervene. Whatever you do, be sure to keep your relationship with your students professional.