Psychiatrists Show How to Identify Mental Health Needs in a Virtual School Setting

By Richard M. Long

Teachers and principals are taking on larger roles to identify students with mental health needs. A time-tested program helps train them to look for critical clues.

Too many of our students are dealing with mental health and social-emotional issues that impact their learning and future success. This is a significant challenge for public schools, communities, and families, and we know that a wide array of professionals are needed in public schools.  But more than 14 million out of 50.7 million public school students attend schools without school counselors, school social workers, or school psychologists.  In those schools the teachers and principals are it.  And, those teachers and principals need tools to reach their students as well.

One time-tested tool has been revised by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation to help teachers, principals, and other school personnel to notice when a student is in need, talk to the student, and to act when further action is needed.  The program is based on 10 years of experience working with schools through the Typical or Troubled program.  From this base a new program has emerged, Notice.Talk.Act., to reach more schools with online material, support, and assessments. 

While anxiety and depression have been increasing in school-aged children even before most schools went online, the pandemic is increasing the number of students who are in need. As a use of the Notice.Talk.Act project, the APA-F recently brought together four psychiatrists to talk about issues they are seeing in the communities and schools in a webinar to help schools increase their awareness of mental health issues students will be facing as the pandemic continues. 

Not surprisingly, the psychiatrists reported that students are having trouble dealing with the trauma, and loss of social connectivity.  They also made several recommendations including interventions that can be done even while using various distance learning platforms. 

For many students simply having an adult asking them how they are doing is even more important now than before the isolation of the pandemic.  For other students, having a teacher taking a bit of time and have the students get up and move—such as dance, exercise, or another activity--can be the catalyst to improvement.

Teachers can also play an important role in identifying which students are more deeply being affected.  These ideas include identifying signs of problems such as withdrawn or disruptive behavior, disrupted sleep patterns, eating patterns. Parents can help by identifying if their child is spending way too much time playing video games, or even too much time in the shower. 

Another role teachers can play is to help students to change how they approach their own problems, such as asking students to identify the best parts and the worst parts of an experience. This gives students a tool not to see all things in simple terms as being all bad and thus overwhelming. Teachers can also help just by teaching how to label emotional issues. This technique helps students identify what they are feeling, which is one step closer to taking effective action.

These are small steps that can make a difference.  Another key is to destigmatize the idea of seeking to connect with a mental health professional.  Many students do not seek treatment because they are afraid of what others might say or think. 

Schools are seeing many students trying to cope with traumatic events way beyond their control.  Their families are disrupted by loss of economic stability, having to move repeatedly, seeing family members sick and some family members dying. Schools are frequently the only time a family will be in contact with someone who can help, but those schools need to have people in them who know how to tell the difference between different challenges students face.  The APA-F has a tool to help.

Information on the program and its costs can be found here

Richard M. Long is the executive director of the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 11 national education groups representing 10 million parents, educators and school board members. He earned an Ed.D. in Family Counseling from George Washington University.

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