- Mental health issues are a growing problem in schools, as roughly 32% of adolescents now have an anxiety disorder, 12% of students ages 12 to17 have experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, the suicide rate for boys ages 15-19 has gone up 30% since 2007 and the suicide rate for girls has doubled since then, Education Week reports.
- Meanwhile, there is a national shortage in the number of school psychologists even if school districts budget for them, and the reasons for the increase in mental health issues remain unclear — some factors affecting the increase include the growing use of social media, fear of school violence, uncivil discourse in the media and society in general, the increase in opioid use, and the growing number of students placed in foster care.
- Principals can respond by offering universal screenings for depression, triaging mental health concerns based on student needs, advocating for better access to mental health professionals at schools, providing more education to students and parents about mental health issues, exploring stronger partnerships with local mental health agencies, and supporting parents who lose children to suicide, if the worst-case scenario occurs.
The mental health of students must be a concern for educators and is among the biggest struggles school principals face. Students struggle to learn effectively if they are dealing with mental health issues that distract their focus. Students with mental health issues can also cause problems for peers via distracting or erratic behavior. While violence caused by mental health issues is rare, it does sometimes happen. And students can also create or exacerbate mental health issues in others through cyberbullying or other methods of intimidation.
Unfortunately, mental health issues are a growing concern for society in general and are becoming a crisis in many schools. However, a school setting also offers a place where these issues may be recognized early and can be dealt with effectively in many cases, if the proper supports are in place. Some states, cities and school districts are now recognizing the growing need for these supports. Some are looking for new funding sources to provide more mental health professionals, while others are now requiring mental health education to help students track and tend to their own mental health and recognize how their actions affect the mental health of others. Some are also creating laws to address the growing problem of youth suicide.
At the school level, principals can help address the issue through social-emotional learning programs and through programs that help address the issues of bullying and cyberbullying. Principals can also explore resources that help provide support and education about these issues and disseminate this information on the school grounds, on school media platforms, and at special events for parents and students.
Additionally, principals can work with district leaders to explore what resources are currently available at the district level and connect with community mental health partners to create a stronger network of support. All students need support in this area, whether it is addressing current issues, learning how to maintain good mental health, or how to help improve the mental health of others around them. Principals are in a great position to provide that support.