Understanding Student Mental Health: Common Issues & Support
Many students feel fear when first recognizing a mental health issue within themselves, as they might not be able to figure out where it came from. Students who previously felt nervous during public speaking but suddenly experience overwhelming panic understandably struggle to figure out what changed. Factors such as significant life changes, politics, family, academic pressure, relationship issues, and money can all contribute to changes in mental health. NAMI also reports that exercise, sleep, and diet can help students feel better or worse, depending on how well they take care of themselves.
Increasing Awareness: Trends in School and On Campus
Suicide is the third leading cause of death in students aged 10–24, with 90 percent of those dying by suicide having an underlying mental illness.
37 percent of students aged 14 or older with a mental health issue drop out of school.
Of the youth in local or state juvenile justice centers, 70 percent have a mental illness.
Stress and Anxiety
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that one in eight children are affected by anxiety, yet 80 percent of those with a diagnosable anxiety disorder do not receive treatment. By going without counseling, medication, and other helpful tools for treating anxiety, children are likely to experience long–reaching issues. Anxiety disorders have been on the rise in K–12 children since at least the 1950s and studies show that numbers are expected to continue rising in the coming years.
Anxiety can be a normal part of childhood if experienced in phases, but students with continued symptoms often have a treatable anxiety disorder. Stress and anxiety hinder academic success more than any other non-academic factors. In addition to hurting concentration, both can lead to racing thoughts, poor judgment, and impaired memory. On the emotional spectrum, depression, agitation, and the inability to relax can result, leading to procrastination or, for some students, self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Anxiety and stress may also manifest themselves physically, causing students to suffer from nausea, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, and chest pains.
Students, parents, and educators seeking more information on how to alleviate stress and anxiety can check out these related guides.
Where to Get Help…
Online and Off-Campus Resources
- Online support groups
Because students can sometimes feel (needlessly) embarrassed about having a mental health concern, many find it valuable to take advantage of online support groups. These spaces provide anonymity, multiple perspectives, and different stories of how the illness affects them. They are also free.
- Resources for coping with stress/anxiety
Given that anxiety can make students feel powerless, some find that learning more about the issue and how to manage it can help them feel more in control. They also provide ideas that students may not have considered previously and offer an alternative for those who cannot afford health care.
- Canine therapy
Recognizing that being around animals can help reduce stress and anxiety, some high schools allow students to spend time with a therapy dog. As a result, students who are overwhelmed by the pressures of school can feel some comfort.
- Kennedy Middle School. Based in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan, this school provides the “Read-to-Dog” and “Tailwagging Tutors” programs to help students build self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and decrease depression.
- K–9 Reading Buddies. This innovative program provides canine support from pre-kindergarten through high school, with objectives including supporting students with literacy issues or those considered at-risk. At the high school level, canines are brought in for stress relief clinics.
- Counseling centers
Some schools offer counseling centers that allow students to speak to a therapist about their problems with stress and anxiety. If there isn’t a specific counseling center available, students be able to receive a referral to a community clinic in their neighborhood.
- Collierville School. As part of its efforts to provide wellness services to learners, Collierville School offers individual/group counseling, developmental group lessons, student advocacy, consultations, and parents/school staff training.
- HSE High School. This school employs 10 licensed counselors who provide crisis intervention, individual counseling, group counseling, referrals, and suicide prevention.
- Nap hall
A nap is a great way to re-energize and improve cognitive function. In some high schools, students are allowed to use their study hall time to take a nap, allowing them to recharge in the middle of a busy day.
- Stress and anxiety peer groups
Many schools have groups that allow students to get together with their peers and discuss their concerns. These can help remind learners that they are not alone and identify fellow students they can check in with during the day.
- Bring Change to Mind. This student-led high school club focuses on empowering students to engage in conversations about things like anxiety and stress as a way to feel less alone.
- High School Anxiety Support Group. Chad’s Coalition provides summer support groups for students aged 14–18 to receive peer support.
The National Institute of Mental Health found that approximately 11 percent of children are diagnosed with a depressive disorder by the age of 18. While gender does not seem to play a role prior to puberty, girls are twice as likely to have depression as boys after adolescence. Students who come from a family with at least one depressive parent are also at a higher risk for developing depression themselves.
Depression is extremely debilitating and can prevent adolescents from engaging in many day-to-day activities, including completing schoolwork. People who suffer from depression may display a number of symptoms, such as poor concentration, changes in sleep and eating habits, low energy and mood, and panic attacks. When depression manifests, it can be difficult for students to get motivated enough to study for tests, work on assignments, or even attend classes. If the condition is not diagnosed and treated as soon as possible, students may have a harder time academically as they move up from one grade level to the next.
GET HELP NOW: If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, help exists. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or take part in the Lifeline Chat online 24/7.ASO
If you’re looking for more information about coping with grief as a student or helping prevent suicide, check out our other guides here:
Where to Get Help…
Online and Off-Campus Resources
- Online support groups
Depression can feel isolating, and some students may not be ready to talk about their challenges in-person—at least not at first. Fortunately, a number of online support groups exist where students can find support, acceptance, and common ground.
- Resources for coping with depression
Depression can feel overwhelming as students lose interest in formerly enjoyable activities, avoid social interactions, and neglect everyday tasks. In addition to seeking professional help, some students want to learn more about the illness and what they can do to feel better.
- Depression peer groups
Many schools have developed support groups so students can discuss their depression with each other as a professional counselor facilitates. Also, students may be able to locate peer groups through their student union.
- NAMI Racine County. NAMI’s Racine County chapter provides Teen Talk, a biweekly group for high school teams seeking support in dealing with depression and other mental health concerns.
- Peer-to-Peer Depression Awareness Campaign. Organized as a partnership between the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor Public Schools, this peer group works to educate learners about depression and other mental health issues and help them find creative ways of sharing this information with fellow students.
- Suicide Prevention Curricula
Several classroom programs exist that help provide information about depression to students and prevent suicides. Some schools have used these programs to educate students on the risk factors related to depression and suicide and provide them with the skills needed to recognize and manage the illness.
- LEADS. Linking Education and Awareness of Depression and Suicide exists for high school students and helps them increase their knowledge of suicide and suicide prevention resources. It also covers links between depression and suicide.
- Teens for Life. Provided by Crisis Support Services, this curriculum is designed to prevent suicide amongst middle school and high school learners, with emphasis on helping individuals recognize depression and/or suicidal tendencies in themselves or others early and seek support.
- School-based counseling
High schools generally give students access to free mental health care through a specific counseling center or the general health center. Some schools also provide training for teachers and parents to provide support to learners as they seek help.
- Natick Public Schools Counseling. This Massachusetts-based elementary school offers counseling services at all five schools in the district and works with administrators, psychologists, parents, and medical professionals to ensure students receive the help they need.
- TeenHope. A program of the Samaritan Counseling Center, TeenHope works with the Lancaster County School System in Pennsylvania to provide mental health screening for depression and suicide. The program then connects students with treatment programs in their schools.
- Regular check-ins
Some schools provide regular check-ins for students who are suffering from depression, which allows teachers, nurses, or guidance counselors to find out how they’re coping with problems and pressures. This gives students a strong support system that helps them handle their illness and succeed in school.
- Check-in & Warm Up Materials and Activities. Trails to Wellness provides several games and materials that help students open up about their emotions and feel more comfortable talking about issues like depression.
- School and Classroom Strategies: Depression. Students FIRST Project offers ideas on how to facilitate check-ins, how point persons can be designated, and how to use that short amount of time to ensure learners are in a good place for the day.
- Religious leaders
Students often find comfort from a group where they can practice their faith, and it can be a place to get counseling in conjunction with medical treatment for depression. Students can check with their school’s chaplain or religious leaders to find out if spiritual counseling is available.
- PROPEL. Church of the Resurrection provides a small group for high school students dealing with depression who want to talk about their experiences in a safe group environment.
- Newsong Church. This progressive ministry currently offers two support groups for students aged 13–17 that are staffed by licensed therapists, clinical psychologists, and family therapists who help them address issues caused by depression.
Drug Abuse and Alcoholism
A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that 70 percent of high school seniors have tried alcohol, 50 percent have tried an illegal drug, and more than 20 percent have used prescription drugs for a non–medical purpose. While experimenting with alcohol and drugs is often a normal part of the older student experience, overuse of these substances causes both academic and non–academic consequences that, if left untreated, can last a lifetime. Among adolescents, substance abuse can cause neurological damage that directly influences academic performance, such as harm to verbal skills and memory. These students may perform poorly in their middle school or high school classes, leading to lower grades and overall lack of motivation. Other issues could include automobile accidents, violence, and unprotected sex.
The good news is that NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey found that use of illicit drugs (outside marijuana) is at its lowest level in two decades, while binge drinking has shown a five-year decline among students in all grade levels. With high school seniors, the perception of risk associated with binge drinking increased significantly in 2018.
Students, teachers, and parents looking for more advice on handling issues surrounding drug abuse, alcoholism, and peer pressure can find additional information and resources in the guides below.
Where to Get Help…
Online and Off-Campus Resources
- Online support groups
Overcoming alcoholism and drug abuse can feel overwhelming, and many recovered individuals speak about the incredible power of community when working to become sober. If you aren’t ready for an in-person group, check out these online support groups for help.
- Resources for coping with substance abuse
If left untreated, substance abuse and addiction can ruin not only the life of the addicted person, but also many people around them. Individuals wanting to learn more about causes, symptoms, and recovery can check out the links below.
- Drug awareness curricula
Some schools provide programs to educate teens on the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. These programs––which may be part of a health class or a voluntary after school program––teach students how to resist peer pressure, manage stress, and develop drug resistance and social problem-solving skills.
- Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens. In 2018, Bard High School Early College Manhattan became the first school in the country to introduce this innovative 14-unit course for ninth grade health students. The program focuses on instilling healthy decision-making and critical thinking skills surrounding drugs.
- Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Starting in 2017, all schools in Preston County, West Virginia began implementing a program aimed at preventing the use of alcohol and drugs illegally. The program is based on data surrounding drug and violence problems and uses reports from the federal government’s Principles of Effectiveness.
- Drug Abuse and Alcoholism Peer Groups
Some campuses have twelve-step programs for students working on their sobriety. Also, schools without twelve-step programs may have peer support groups that include mentoring from students who have overcome addiction and alcohol-free social activities.
- Operation UNITE. This group currently maintains 145 clubs serving more than 10,000 students in grades 4–12 in Kentucky. The group works to empower students to avoid drugs and alcohol through prevention, intervention, and leadership programs.
- Prevention Club. Based at Sunnyside High school, this peer-led group works to discourage poor decision-making related to drugs, alcohol, and other harmful behaviors. The group meets once weekly and also hosts special meetings and field trips throughout the year.
- Recovery schools
Recovery high schools are alternative schools that allow students struggling with alcohol and drug addiction to learn in an environment conducive to their recovery. In addition to schoolwork, these institutions provide mental health and addiction counseling.
- Anchor Learning Academy. This school in Rhode Island serves students working to overcome alcohol and drug addictions while also ensuring they receive the education needed to hit academic benchmarks and prepare for graduation. The school uses individualized treatment plans, weekly counseling, daily check-ins, and transition services to help students overcome their addictions.
- Peers Enjoying a Sober Education (PEASE) Academy. As one of the oldest public recovery high schools, this Minnesota-based institution provides chemical dependency counselors, daily peer support meetings, sobriety support groups, and an online education program. The school supports middle and high school students.
- The Association of Recovery Schools. Students and parents seeking a recovery school in their area can use ARS’s database to find a suitable option.
Data supplied by the National Survey of Children’s Health suggests that approximately 6.1 million American children aged 2–17 had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), or approximately 9.4 percent of all kids within the age bracket. Of those surveyed, children between ages 12 and 17 were most likely to have received a diagnosis, although numbers for children aged 2–5 rapidly increased over the previous decade.
This disorder can result in a number of behaviors that hurt academic performance, including daydreaming in class, trouble listening to others, fidgeting, talking out of turn, and getting bored easily. Students with ADHD may make careless mistakes because of their impulsive nature or have trouble remembering when assignments are due. Compared to students without ADHD, these learners are more likely to receive failing grades and lower grade point averages.
ADHD is frequently associated with other mental health issues, which can further contribute to challenges in school. Some students with ADHD also suffer from depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
In addition to the resourced highlighted in this guide for students with ADHD, parents and teachers can also review other guides on the subject below:
Where to Get Help…
Online and Off-Campus Resources
- Online support groups
Whether you’re a teenager or a parent, online support groups can be really helpful for feeling supported, understanding certain behaviors, and reading about treatments and modifications that have helped others.
- Resources for coping with ADHD
Although ADHD can feel overwhelming for children, parents, and teachers alike, understanding how it affects students and how it can be treated can do much for creating a plan of action and helping learners manage symptoms.
- ADHD evaluation
Parents who suspect their child might have ADHD can request an evaluation at the school to start the process of receiving a formal diagnosis. This process usually involves an academic and psychological evaluation and an interview to determine if the student qualifies for accommodations or special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
- 5 School Assessments Your Child May Be Entitled To. ADDitude Magazine educates parents on the various types of assessments typically conducted by schools and which ones your student is eligible to receive if you suspect they have ADHD.
- Requesting an Evaluation in Public Schools. CHADD provides a comprehensive resource that helps parents learn how to make a request, how the school should respond, and what to include in the request.
- ADHD schools
Several elementary, middle, and high schools exist for students diagnosed with ADHD or other learning disabilities to receive therapeutic care while also working towards academic proficiency. These schools operate as both day and boarding schools, depending on individual needs.
- The St. Anthony School. Located in Dallas, SAS provides K–12 education focused on individualized curricula, multi-sensory approaches, and therapeutic environments.
- SOAR Academy. This school serves students with ADHD seeking a boarding education from grades 7–12 from its North Carolina location. Students participate in four-week cycles including two weeks in the classroom followed by two weeks on expedition field studies. The school also provides outdoor adventure programs and camps for students aged 8–25.
- ADHD organizations that partner with schools
Several nonprofits have created programs specifically for supporting students with ADHD in schools. If your child’s school does not currently have a chapter, consider reaching out to school administrators to find out about implementing the program.
- Edge ADHD coaching. The Edge Foundation works with school districts in order to provide coaching to those with ADHD. In conjunction with teachers, guidance counselors, and physicians, coaches help them learn the skills needed to excel in school.
- ADHD after school programming. A program piloted by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital is working with two school districts to use University of Cincinnati psychology students to help learners organize lockers, improve test-taking and study skills, and improve homework completion rates.
- Skills workshops
Another resource that students with ADHD may have available to them through their school is skills training. Workshops can teach these students how to manage their time successfully, avoid procrastination, and engage in social interactions with confidence and focus.
- Blue Valley Schools. As part of this institution’s special education services, students with ADHD can take advantage of transition services, including skills training. Professional staff work with students to develop social and behavioral skills, academic success, self-determination, and other adult life skills.
- Sparhawk School. Based in Massachusetts, this inclusive school provides an array of personal development courses for students to build their skills in areas of character development, public speaking, social interactions, studying, and time management.
- Special accommodations
Many K–12 schools provide accommodations for students diagnosed with ADHD to help them succeed academically. The school should provide an evaluation and work in consultation with your child’s doctor or mental health professional to determine which accommodations best serve their needs.
- Understood. Understood provides a list of common accommodations so parents feel knowledgeable when they meet with school administrators and teachers to create an action plan.
- Step-by-Step Guide for Securing ADHD Accommodations at School. ADDitude Magazine helps parents feel confident that they understand the process for requesting accommodations and helps them ascertain whether a 504 Plan or IEP best meets their child’s unique needs.
Data from the National Institutes of Mental Health found that 21 was the median age of onset for binge eating disorder, while it sat at 18 for both bulimia and anorexia. Despite these numbers, it’s not uncommon for middle and high school students to develop eating disorders – this is disproportionately true if they are female.
Students with anorexia and bulimia experience a number of physical side effects—such as headaches, nausea and fatigue—that can make it more difficult to succeed in the classroom. In addition, these disorders can impair cognitive function and development in teenagers, which also can have long-lasting consequences. Similarly, eating disorders can lead to depression and anxiety, which impede students’ motivation to do coursework and cause behavioral problems that make it difficult to learn.
If you’re a teacher, parent, or fellow student who suspects a loved one might have developed an eating disorder, review our guide to learn how to detect concerning behaviors and provide support.
Where to Get Help…
Online and Off-Campus Resources
- Online support groups
Living with an eating disorder can feel extremely isolating – especially if you haven’t told anyone yet. Online support groups provide an effective environment for gaining hope, hearing success stories, and reading about helpful resources and programs.
- Resources for coping with eating disorders
Living with an eating disorder feels scary, but lots of resources exist to educate students and their families on how to seek help and move towards recovery.
Students with eating disorders may be able to speak to a counselor at school who has specific experience treating bulimia, anorexia, and other eating disorders. This also allows them to address the mental health problems associated with eating disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
- Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin. This school provides an example of how K–12 schools can offer eating disorder counseling by having trained professionals on staff who can work with students at school and make appropriate recommendations for other services as needed.
- The School Counselor’s Role in Addressing Eating Disorders. The American Counseling Association provides information for parents, administrators, and counselors who want more information about how school counselors can help and support learners facing eating disorders.
- Eating disorders peer groups
Therapy groups for students with eating disorders may be organized through the campus counseling center. There may also be peer advisors available to discuss students’ concerns about eating disorders and offer advice on how to get help.
- South Forsyth High. Students at this Georgia school can join the Love ‘Ur Life Always Club, which promotes positive body image and is supervised by the Eating Disorder Information Network.
- Watertown High School. This South Dakota school maintains the Peer Helper Club, which focuses on caring for self, others, school, and community. As part of the group, peer helpers support mental health wellness and help each other deal with issues they face, including eating disorders.
- Therapeutic High Schools
These specialized schools balance academic progress with eating disorder recovery for students who need a more intensive program to get back to their healthy and happy selves. Students can go for a semester, year, or longer based on their needs.
- Newport Academy. This school helps students break the cycle of eating disorders, treats root causes, provides various therapy modalities, and introduces mindfulness practices to help students overcome the illness.
- Wolf Creek Academy. From its campus in North Carolina, Wolf Creek Academy specializes in providing eating disorder treatment alongside an academic curriculum. The school employs licensed therapists and medical professionals who help students identify patterns, receive help, and create a healthy plan for moving forward.
- Nutrition counseling
Some K–12 schools employ nutritionists that specialize in helping students with eating disorders. Depending on the school, students may be able to meet with a nutritionist on a weekly or monthly basis in order to regularly get information on healthy eating habits.
- St. Lucie Public Schools. In addition to providing a licensed nutritionist, this school system provides additional support for students with special dietary needs. If the child has been recommended a specific diet to aid in their recovery from an eating disorder, parents can work with the school to ensure they get what’s needed.
- Eating Disorder and Health Body Image Curricula. Bulimia Guide provides free curricula for grades K–12 for schools that want to implement training and counseling on how to keep minds and bodies healthy.
- Prevention programs
During National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, many schools offer education programs that address anorexia and bulimia, body image, and how students can get help if they have disordered eating.
- Truths about School-Based Eating Disorder Prevention. While some schools and parents may have fears that education about eating disorders will lead some students to develop them, Walden Behavioral Care created this informative and fact-based guide to help offer clarity on why prevention programs are necessary.
- Eating Disorder Handout. As part of its prevention programs, Wythe County Public Schools in Virginia provides a handout that provides information on common eating disorders as well as a section devoted to places where students and their families can find help.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that half a million American children have been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or approximately one in every 200 learners. Students with OCD may have obsessive thoughts and fears and feel compelled to perform compulsive rituals throughout the day. This can make school a daunting proposition because even though these students may want to pay attention in class and do their homework, disordered thinking can make it difficult to focus. Consequently, this can lead to poor performance on tests, difficulty understanding course material, and an inability to complete homework. Even motivated students can eventually face falling grades if the disorder is left untreated.
Parents, teachers, administrators, and students who want to learn more about behavioral disorders can do so by reading this related guide.
Where to Get Help…
Online and Off-Campus Resources
- Online support groups
Knowing that you’re not alone in OCD tendencies can be a great relief, and online support groups can help students find others who know what it’s like to live with this illness. They can also share helpful resources.
- Resources for coping with OCD
Even after receiving a diagnosis, many parents, administrators, and teachers have lots of questions about how OCD works and how medical and healthcare professionals most commonly treat it. These resources provide insight and helpful details.
- Alternative Schools
Students with severe forms of OCD may find it helpful to attend a therapeutic school – at least for a time – to lessen their symptoms and learn about evidence-based practices for controlling OCD urges.
- Newport Academy. This school incorporates Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure and Response Prevention, and other therapy modalities to help teens with OCD fight against the circle of obsessive and/or compulsive urges as they strike.
- Sedona Sky Academy. This boarding school for girls aged 13–18 provides specialized OCD therapies alongside academic coursework. The school provides individual, group, family, and equine therapy plus other activities that help students successfully complete everyday tasks.
- Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
Public school students with OCD may be eligible to receive individualized education services from their school district. IEPs use the expertise of medical professionals and teachers to provide services that help students succeed in school, such as counseling, speech therapy, and instructional accommodations like extra time for assignments.
- OCD, IDEA, and IEPs: How to Access Special Education Services for Children with OCD. The International OCD Foundation offers actionable information for parents who suspect their children need an IEP but aren’t sure how to proceed.
- Understanding the Law and Students with OCD. The ADAA offers information on the differences between a 504 Plan and IDEA and how to make the best individualized choices based on your child’s unique needs.
- OCD Peer Groups
Many schools have OCD peer groups that are either arranged by students or function as a chapter of a national mental health awareness group. Students with the disorder may be able to join peer groups that address specific issues related to OCD, such as hoarding, or the skills they need to improve their academic performance—including time management and effective studying.
- Our Minds Matter School Clubs. This national nonprofit works with schools throughout the country to create student-led clubs that address issues such as OCD and provide concrete support and understanding communities.
- NAMI High School Clubs. The National Alliance on Mental Illness maintains many high school clubs that address several mental health issues – including OCD. Students and families can review the map to find a local option or start a club at their school.
Data from Stanford Child’s Health suggests that approximately four percent of all children experience some type of trauma while still under the age of 18—these incidents can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder throughout their lives. Of those children and adolescents who experienced trauma, approximately seven percent of girls and two percent of boys will receive a PTSD diagnosis.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur when someone experiences a traumatic stressor in their life. While people often think of PTSD as something that only affects veterans coping with their experiences on the battlefield, the condition can be caused by a number of traumatic experiences—such as serious accidents, domestic abuse, assaults or non-violent crime. In addition, PTSD can also be caused by witnessing a traumatic event.
PTSD can have serious effects on the brain that impair memory and make it difficult for students to do well in school. In addition, these students may also experience panic attacks and a lack of motivation or concentration, as well as disordered sleeping and eating patterns. All of these symptoms make it difficult for students to pay attention in class and keep up with their assignments, potentially leading to poor grades.
Where to Get Help…
Online and Off-Campus Resources
- Online support groups
Continually explaining what it feels like to have PTSD can be exhausting for children, leading them to desire communications with individuals who understand what they’re going through and can provide hope and encouragement.
- Resources for coping with PTSD
Educators, administrators, parents, and kids often want to know more about what causes PTSD, how its symptoms behave, and what can be done to support children as they work through the traumatic events and try to move past them.
- Classroom, assignment, and examination accommodations
Students with PTSD may be able to get special accommodations to help them perform well on assignments and tests, as well as get the most out of their time in the classroom. Accommodations may include a tape recorder to document lectures, individually proctored examinations, and advanced notice of upcoming assignments.
- IEP and 504 Suggestions for Children Affected by Trauma. This informative guide helps parents of children with PTSD better understand how to advocate for them at school.
- Resources for Schools to Help Students Affected by Trauma Learn. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction offers these helpful resources for teachers who want to ensure they implement effective accommodations specific to PTSD.
Expert Interview: Beth Jakubanis, MSW
Common triggers for depression and anxiety can trace back to pressures or changes in school or family life. A kid can experience anxiety, for example, for a variety of reasons. One possible reason is pressure at school: think in terms of tests or papers, a change of a teacher or classroom, conflicts with other kids in the form of social media bullying or face-to-face bullying. A kid may experience depression as a result of a loss of an important relationship, a change in the family (an older sibling leaves the house, new sibling joins the family, parents separate, a grandparent dies).
Causes of alcoholism and drug abuse are complex. To begin with, some individuals are sensation-seeking and experiment with them to pursue the sensation. Other individuals may be growing up in an environment where alcohol and drug use is normalized. There is also a genetic component to a vulnerability to alcoholism and drug abuse.
Eating disorders also have a genetic component and are often activated when a person is looking for a sense of control. Controlling the food that comes in or out of their body may be the most control that they are able to exercise over their circumstances. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is usually brought on when a life or death situation is experienced by an individual. The fear-inducing memory is improperly stored in the amygdala. Some research has found that a mother who experiences a trauma during pregnancy can pass along a genetic marker which creates a vulnerability towards PTSD in their children.
- Strengthen their support network. A support network of teachers, adults/parents, and friends can reduce feelings of isolation by providing the individual with people who can normalize their feelings, help them to think differently about their circumstances, and improve their mood. Research shows that one supportive adult at a school can reduce the likelihood that a student will drop out of school.
- Engage in pleasurable activities. We know that we have the capacity to improve our mood by engaging in pleasurable activities. Examples of enjoyable activities will differ for different people. Some ideas can include listening to or dancing to favorite music, reading a favorite book, rollerblading, swimming, playing with animals, etc.
- Set goals for yourself. Oftentimes when our mood is low, we have a hard time imagining what it would be like if the problem were no longer present. Envisioning a world where the problem no longer exists and taking steps to resolve it can be a very effective way of improving mood and changing the external circumstances that are triggering the difficulties.
- Change your body chemistry. When we are feeling low there is often a biological component to our mood. We can change that by changing our body chemistry. How do we do that? Enter TIPP. TIPP stands for Temperature, Intense exercise, Paced breathing, and Paired muscle relaxation. Here’s how: change your body temperature (take a cold shower, hold some ice cubes, etc.), do intense aerobic exercises like running, and do belly breathing or a guided muscle relaxation video. These things can bring immediate relief.
- Cope ahead. Sometimes we are taken by surprise by a negative mood, but sometimes we can anticipate it. When coping ahead, we teach ourselves how to prepare for what may be unpleasant and create a plan to get through the difficulty without becoming overwhelmed by the emotions that it evokes.
When things are tough, a student should tell their parents and together with their parents identify who at the school they may want to involve in the conversation. What to tell the school will depend upon what the problem is. A student and their family may brainstorm about what support they may want in notifying the school. Are they going to ask for accommodations in completing homework? Extra time on a test because of anxiety? A special testing environment because of ADHD? A school can be very helpful and responsive when they know what challenges the student is facing and everyone has an open conversation about how to best meet the needs of the student who is struggling.
A parent can best support their child by listening to their difficulties. At different ages a child will communicate their difficulties in different ways. A seven-year-old doesn't often have the ability to tell their parent that they are depressed. Instead they may show it in behaviors such as irritability, crying, or isolating from others. Meanwhile a teen may withdraw from others but have the capacity to discuss feelings of anxiety or depression with an adult.
It is important that a parent is able to accept and validate the child's feelings and does not try to talk them out of the feelings or otherwise invalidate them. Reassuring them that everyone feels this way sometimes and accepting the emotions can in and of itself be very healing for the child. Following up with helping the child through some of the above interventions can often be enough.
Proactive Wellness and Students: General Techniques
Receiving treatment from psychological and medical professionals is one of the best things students and their families can do when faced with a mental health issue but is by no means their only defense. There are many steps that students can take to augment their treatment and live healthfully in the hopes of offsetting some symptoms. That being said, self-diagnosis and self-treatment can be dangerous if used in place of professional help. The tips given herein should be explored in concert with a trained specialist.
There’s an App for That: 9 Programs that Promote Mental Health
The first step a student and their family should take is finding a licensed therapist or mental health professional who can perform and evaluation and create a plan of treatment. After completing this step, some teens may find it helpful to explore the wide range of iPhone and Android apps that exist to promote good mental health. A few of the best ones are highlighted below.
- 123TokenMe. Designed specifically for children with ADHD, this $9.99 iPhone app helps them stay focused and motivated through personalized tools and games.
- Calm. This free to try iPhone app helps users reduce their anxiety, improve sleep, learn meditation techniques, and feel more connected to their bodies by using breathing techniques.
- Dream EZ. Students who experience nightmares related to PTSD can use this free iphone app to learn how to rewrite their dreams and use Imagery Rehearsal Therapy to change what comes into their heads while sleeping.
- HealthyMinds (iPhone/Android). Designed specifically for students, this app provides users with problem-solving techniques to help them deal with stress.
- LifeArmor (Android) This app is designed to help members of the military community with 17 mental health concerns such as sleep, depression, relational issues, and post-traumatic stress.
- Moodpath (iPhone/Android). Moodpath is a free app that helps individuals move through difficult times of life. The app asks questions each day to screen for depression and ensure wellbeing. It also provides helpful exercises and videos.
- nocd. Offered free via iPhone apps, nocd helps those with OCD by providing clinically effective guidance, OCD chat communities, treatment data, and progress reports.
- RecoveryRecord (iPhone/Android). This free app is used by clinicians and individuals alike to promote recovery from eating disorders. The app allow for meal logs and meal plans, provides coping skills, and offers secure messages with licensed clinicians to aid in the road to recovery.
- SoberGrid (iPhone/Android). Offered as a free app, SoberGrid connects individuals struggling with addiction to global communities both in their neighborhood and around the world. For a small fee, users can also take advantage of 24/7 peer coaches.
- Talkspace (iPhone/Android). Provided as a counseling and therapy app, users can participate in a free consultation to find a therapist that meets their needs. They can upgrade to membership status and take part in secure conversations with private, licensed therapists. Appointments cost on average 80 percent less than office appointments.
Insider Perspective: Pursuing My Education with a Mental Disorder
I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, and for two years I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. It was very tough. I missed a lot of school and had trouble with friendships, and there was also a lot of pressure on my family to find the right treatments to help me rebuild my life. It was a very hard couple of years. I’ve been stable for about 20 years, but it took me a long time to put my life back together.
It started to manifest in my teens. I would say around 15 or 16 I had the first signs of it. I had been doing well in my life and in high school I was very high achieving. Then at about 16, things started to unravel. I had my first manic episode then that required a hospitalization. I couldn’t sleep. I was very nervous about my health; I thought I was dying and ended up going to the emergency room. A few weeks later, I was diagnosed with bipolar and it would take a solid two years to find the right treatment because medicine and therapy would go well, but I’d fall back into an incident again.
Before all of this happened, I was in advanced classes and I really did well in school. After it happened, it was much harder to attend school. For a short time, I had to go to a special school for kids with special needs, so I went from excelling in school to having to reintegrate into school again.
Before I was always very confident and had a lot of friends. After I really felt knocked down. I was embarrassed that other kids would make fun of me, or if I wanted to date, people wouldn’t want to date me because of the illness. I became very insecure for a while, and part of what I needed to do in therapy was find the courage to make friends again, potentially start to date, and get ready to be an adult.
When I was sick, I felt so alone and hopeless, so I would tell a young person going through it that there are many people experiencing these issues. If you take the right steps, you can have a full life. I’m happily married, I have two children, I’ve been educated all over the world, I’ve written six books. If I had known when I was so sick that any of that would have happened, it would have kept me a lot more positive. I really believe that if you take care of your mental health, you can do anything you set out to do in life—but the key thing is to accept what you’re facing and get the help. I love that all the pain I went through is helping inspire people, and I never would have guessed that when I was so young and feeling like these problems were so hard.
Additional Resources for Students and Parents
Students with mental health conditions do not have to suffer in silence. There are a number of resources available where they can get information on how to cope with their condition, seek assistance, and better understand what they’re experiencing. The following are some resources that can help.
- American Psychological Association. The American Psychological Association’s website includes information on the relationship between mental health and school performance, tips on emotional wellness, and where to find help.
- MentalHealth.gov. Operating as part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, this website offers actionable advice on how to recognize and treat mental health issues, where to seek support, and some common warning signs.
- Mental Health America. MHA offers a variety of helpful programs, online screening tools, information about finding help, and resources that students, parents, and educators will find helpful.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. This nonprofit organization’s website has discussion groups, tips for how to live a healthy lifestyle with mental illness, and facts about different disorders.
- National Institute of Mental Health. NIMH has resources describing how mental disorders affect adolescents and adults, as well as information on where to find treatment and how it is conducted.
- Psychology Today. This companion site to the popular magazine includes blogs written by mental health experts and extensive information on disorders. In addition, readers can search for a therapist.
- Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. In addition to general resources, SAHM also provides a portion of the website devoted to mental health support services for adolescents and young adults.
- Teen Mental Health. TMH provides a school mental health curriculum, a resource toolbox, active social media channels, and supportive programs to ensure teens with mental health challenges get the help they need.