5 Ways School Districts Can Support Student and Teacher Mental Health

Chelsea Penney
September 21, 2023

Mental health issues pervade the United States, and the crisis is concentrated in schools. Students and teachers face high rates of mental disorders. CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021 states, “In 2021, more than 4 in 10 (42%) students felt persistently sad or hopeless, and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health.” The problem extends to school professionals as well. EdSurge reports, “Teaching is considered as stressful as working as an emergency room doctor.” 

Mental health is a serious growing issue, but it is also gaining awareness, and support is becoming more readily available. Let's work together to improve mental health resources and ensure school wellbeing.

Student Mental Health

This isn’t just an adult issue - students face mental challenges too. Common mental disorders in children include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and behavior disorders.

Facts about mental disorders in U.S. children from CDC

ADHD, anxiety problems, behavior problems, and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children. Estimates for ever having a diagnosis among children aged 3-17 years in 2016-19 are given below.

  • ADHD 9.8% (approximately 6.0 million)
  • Anxiety 9.4% (approximately 5.8 million)
  • Behavior problems 8.9% (approximately 5.5 million)
  • Depression 4.4% (approximately 2.7 million)

Some of these conditions commonly occur together. For example, among children aged 3-17 years in 2016:

  • Having another mental disorder was most common in children with depression: about 3 in 4 children with depression also had anxiety (73.8%), and almost 1 in 2 had behavior problems (47.2%).
  • More than 1 in 3 children with anxiety also had behavior problems (37.9%), and about 1 in 3 also had depression (32.3%).
  • For children with behavior problems, more than 1 in 3 also had anxiety (36.6%), and about 1 in 5 also had depression (20.3%).

Depression and anxiety have increased over time

  • “Ever having been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression” among children aged 6–17 years increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and to 8.4% in 2011–2012.
  • “Ever having been diagnosed with anxiety” increased from 5.5% in 2007 to 6.4% in 2011–2012.
  • “Ever having been diagnosed with depression” did not change between 2007 (4.7%) and 2011-2012 (4.9%).

For adolescents, depression, substance use, and suicide are important concerns. Among adolescents aged 12-17 years in 2018-2019 reporting on the past year:

  • 15.1% had a major depressive episode.
  • 36.7% had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
  • 4.1% had a substance use disorder.
  • 1.6% had an alcohol use disorder.
  • 3.2% had an illicit drug use disorder.
  • 18.8% seriously considered attempting suicide.
  • 15.7% made a suicide plan.
  • 8.9% attempted suicide.
  • 2.5% made a suicide attempt requiring medical treatment.

Poor mental health in students is not to be brushed aside. It has broad effects, including slowed development, low grades, decreased participation, difficulty forming friendships, increased drug use, and violence.

Learn more about high-risk substance use among youth. Learn more about suicide.

Teacher Mental Health

Edweek reports, “About 1 in 4 teachers said they were experiencing symptoms of depression in an early 2021 survey by the RAND Corp.” Teachers are essential to our country’s future. Still, they are often underappreciated and mistreated, damaging their mental health. It ultimately results in talented educators leaving the profession, which has caused a national teacher shortage. Teachers deserve better, more supportive environments.

“According to several studies and reports, teaching is one of the most stressful jobs in the country,” Mental Health America states. “The American Federation of Teachers’ 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey found that 61 percent of teachers said their jobs were always or often stressful—more than double the rate of non-teaching working adults—and 58 percent said they had poor mental health due to stress levels.”

“Teacher well-being is incredibly important, not only for them but for their students’ learning experiences as well,” said Leigh McLean, an assistant research professor at the Center for Research in Education & Social Policy at the University of Delaware.

“Her research has found that teachers with depression spend less time doing whole-class instruction—likely because it’s more demanding and energy-intensive—and have fewer warm and responsive interactions with students. They also spend less time planning and organizing their lessons.”

Schools are short-staffed across the board. From bus drivers to lunch staff to social workers. Teachers are often asked to fill in the gaps. They go above and beyond teaching daily due to these staffing shortages, including filling in as mock counselors and school psychologists when students need them.  

“Of course, mental health support should involve trained interventionists; we shouldn’t position teachers as such,” Hechinger Report says. “Yet access to mental health staff is scarce; school counselors balance an average caseload of 408 students and are often overloaded with administrative responsibilities that leave little room for mental health support. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. districts lack a school psychologist altogether.”

5 Ways School Districts Can Support Student and Teacher Mental Health

1. Provide safe and supportive environments—whether in person or virtually.

  • Integrating social emotional learning.
  • Training staff.
  • Supporting staff mental health.
  • Reviewing discipline policies to ensure equity.

2. Take time for yourself.

  • Prioritize time for your hobbies.
  • Move your body - go for a walk, take an exercise class, or get some fresh air to clear your mind.
  • Take 5 minutes to write down your thoughts when you feel overwhelmed.

3. Encourage families to support one another.

  • Communicate openly and honestly, respecting their values.
  • Spend time as a family enjoying shared activities.
  • Parents should engage in school activities and help with homework.
  • Volunteer at their child’s school.
  • Communicate regularly with teachers and administrators.

4. Provide access and awareness to mental health services.

  • Call or text 988.
  • Simplify processes to see the school counselor or psychologist.

5. Express gratitude.

We share the goal of reducing mental health issues in schools. Let’s work together to improve support for teachers and students.

about the author
Chelsea Penney

Chelsea Penney earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing from University of Colorado Denver and her Masters of Science in Marketing from Texas A&M University Commerce. She loves living in Austin, TX and working on the frontline as Content Marketing Manager for Proximity Learning.

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