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Being a student can be challenging and stressful enough, but when a child is experiencing mental health problems and trying to cope with this alongside schoolwork and other responsibilities, it becomes much, much more difficult.

Medically or psychiatrically diagnosed challenges, including depression, anxiety, and stress, can have a much greater impact on academic performance than other factors such as relationship problems, excessive internet use, and chronic pain.

Mental illness can inhibit students from completing assignments and performing well in class and on tests. Some students may not even make it to school. This is not something we should simply accept, as students can perform well by working through these challenges.

The impact of stress and anxiety:

  • Impaired memory
  • The inability to relax
  • Poor judgement
  • Agitation
  • Racing thoughts
  • Depression
  • Procrastination
  • Self-medication with alcohol and drugs
  • Physical symptoms (chest pains, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and nausea)

It’s not hard to see how any of these symptoms would hinder students in the classroom. The trouble is that it is extremely hard for students to tell family, friends, and teachers when they are suffering from the likes of anxiety or depression.

In fact, one in four students with mental health problems did not want to attend school because they were concerned about what others would say, according to a survey conducted by Time for Change. It is vital for schools to create an open culture around mental illness, and this involves challenging discrimination. 

What can you do to help support students with mental health problems?

  • Robust mental health policy – Dealing with mental illness at school always begins with having a robust policy in place to ensure that teachers respond appropriately when they feel someone is experiencing mental illness.
  • Education – Teachers need to educate themselves before they help others. There is inadequate knowledge regarding causes of mental illness, recognising symptoms, and psychiatric terms.
  • Anxiety and stress peer groups – A lot of schools have adopted this approach. Students get together and talk about their concerns. For example, there could be a group about topics affecting self-esteem, or a group for discussion about body issues.
  • Work with students – It is a good idea to document the behaviour of a student you feel is suffering. By keeping notes of their past behavioural issues, you will be able to notice trends, which you can show to their parents. This also ensures you do not look like you are jumping to conclusions.
  • Avoid language about a diagnosis – Stay away from terms like ‘depressed’ when talking to students. Labelling a student can be damaging to their progress. Instead, focus on their symptoms.
  • Canine therapy – Canine therapy is an alternative approach, and there has been a lot of success reported regarding this type of therapy. Some schools allow students to spend time with a therapy dog, as being around animals can help to lower anxiety and stress. Students can feel some comfort during periods when the pressure of school is overwhelming them.
  • Work with parents – Dealing with parents in the correct manner is important. Remember, this is a difficult and delicate topic to approach. Stay away from any facial expressions, tone of voice, or vocabulary that could be misconstrued as you placing the blame on them.

Have you implemented successful strategies to support students in your setting? You can share them in the comments below.