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December 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 4

Perspectives / On the Front Lines of Mental Health

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School Culture
Social-emotional learning
When I was in high school, a small group of us were in the middle of taking a standardized test when it was announced over the public address system that a boy in our grade had just taken his life. I don't recall what the proctor said to us (if anything), but I recall that we all kept taking the test, even the young man's girlfriend.
There was talk of this suicide in the weeks after, but mostly in low voices. From what I remember, the school didn't offer any ways for us to process the tragedy; there were no assemblies or advisories about clinical depression, no encouragement to talk to a counselor or mentor, not even resource lists sent home for families to look into if they perceived their child might need some help.
This isn't to say I went to a bad high school that didn't care about kids. But the memory makes me realize that U.S. schools have come a long way since 1976 in talking openly—with students, with families, among educators—about mental health. We may have farther to go, but most school and educators seem to recognize that the work of acknowledging and supporting students' mental health is a critical part of whole-child education.
Unfortunately, however, as many articles in this issue point out, most teachers still don't get the kind of training they need to respond sensitively to students' mental health challenges. If there's a theme running through most of these articles, it's that teachers and school leaders need training in appropriate skills, basic information about emotional and mental health conditions, and systems for turning to colleagues who specialize in mental health when serious problems surface. They also need a lot of support themselves.
Teacher Sandy Merz, for instance, asserts that like most teachers, he's had "zero training in issues related to student mental health." He gropes for ways to help students suffering from problems like depression, relying on informal advice shared by fellow teachers or school counselors (whose heavy caseloads don't leave them much time). Merz describes the kind of realistic training he thinks would serve educators, training that "seeks to help teachers become better teachers, not mental health experts or therapists."
Such capacity building would clarify questions like what mental illnesses are likely to be seen in K–12 schools, or which atypical behaviors teachers might address themselves versus referring them to people with more expertise. Ideally, it would also increase sensitivity to the life stresses certain groups of kids endure that chip away at emotional health, such as racism and poverty (Sehgal, Jeffries, and Rappaport, Milner IV).
Other writers in this issue describe how schools and districts can create ways for educators to better seek the help of in-school counselors or school psychologists (Reilly), families or community health groups, and even law enforcement officials who encounter young people in traumatic situations (Kelly, Rossen, and Cowan).
Many of the articles address particular challenges now common among students. Trauma expert Kristin Souers offers helpful background on Adverse Childhood Experiences and how childhood trauma affects kids and learning. Jessica Minahan's piece and video interview explain what's often happening under the surface for students with General Anxiety Disorder. Nonsuicidal self-injury and opioid abuse are other troubling behaviors frequent in U.S. schools that interfere with health and learning. Janis Whitlock and Penelope Hasking and Justine Welsh, Nancy Rappaport, and Valeria Tretyak provide background, strategies, and lots of resources that can help educators reach out knowledgably to students grappling with these difficult problems.
As Jeffrey Benson's article makes clear, while supporting students with painful mental health challenges, teachers themselves need systemic support. Benson refers to the professional hazard of "secondary trauma … the feelings experienced professionals must bear to work with people who are diagnosed with mental and emotional illnesses." He asserts that "schools as systems must robustly support their teachers," and lists eight practices schools or districts can take.
On the front lines, educators can make a difference. Empathy, active listening, and instructional supports that take into account each individual learner's emotional state are all important for maintaining mentally healthy schools. Story after story in this issue shows how educators can set up classrooms and interact with all students in ways that increase resilience, show people how to get help, and reduce the stigma that still too often (just as in my high school days) keeps us from talking about mental health.

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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