Peace, Love, and Mental Health

As I talk to parents, it is often mentioned how different education is now compared to when our generation was in school. Since our building is a newly renovated version of the old high school, it is common for parents to reminisce about their own high school years while visiting with us; of skipping class and hiding in the baseball dugouts, smoking cigarettes in the courtyard while on break, or receiving paddlings from the administration.  While none of those activities are allowed anymore, possibly the largest contrast between today and the “good ole days” is found in the way schools approach mental health, bullying, and suicidal ideation. Mental health and suicide are no longer taboo topics that do not get discussed. Bullying is no longer minimized as “kids being kids”. Administrators are now forced to confront these issues head-on. 

In our school, we intentionally build a culture that incorporates compassionate staff members, resources to address our students’ needs and strategies to address these pertinent topics.  Recently, we hosted youth motivational speaker, Jeff Yalden (pictured right). Jeff is a veteran who is diagnosed as bipolar and has PTSD. His honest and real approach with students was impactful on both students and faculty.  His time with us focused on supporting those with mental health issues, self-care, and focusing more on enjoyed activities. His formal talk with students and our casual conversations made me think about the supports we already provide for students, and what other schools are doing that we should be emulating. Here is a brief list of some of the ways our school cares for students who struggle with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations, or other mental health issues that threaten students’ safety and learning.  

  • Be relational – We are purposeful in creating authentic relationships with our students through our Teacher-as-Advisor and House programs.  In these non-instructional times, our teachers are getting to know more students than just those who appear on the class roster.  These times are spent modeling and reinforcing soft skills through our #RaiderRegs, discussing key concepts from our faculty book studies, competing in games against other Houses, or monitoring academic progress and goals.  These lessons occur in more casual settings and are designed to give the students additional adults in the building they may feel comfortable approaching in a time of need. Our superintendent recently asked all the assistant principals in the district to identify students in their school who do not have at least one adult they can talk to.  The thought of a student being isolated in a building of nearly 100 adults is a scary consideration.   
  • Be visible – Eating lunch in the cafeteria, popping into classrooms unexpectedly, and greeting students in the hallways during class change can have a tremendous positive impact.  Not only do these efforts provide you with opportunities to learn students’ names, but being visible every day makes it easier to tell when a student is having a bad day or is struggling with an issue that needs to be addressed with a professional.  Furthermore, students will be more likely to speak honestly with an administrator that they see outside of the formal, intimidating principal’s office setting. 
  • Be available – While is it easy to get burdened with the never-ending to-do list all that we all have, being truly willing to listen to students’ hopes and needs can change a student’s life.  Even as adults, sometimes we just need someone to listen to us. Knowing students’ names and greeting them every day are pointless if we are not available and/or perceptive when a student’s needs need to be addressed. 
  • Be resourceful – Mental health issues can have a real impact on student learning and the safety of a school.  I am thankful to work in a district that “puts its money where its mouth is”. We were the first school system in the state, and maybe even the country, to have an app where students can anonymously report safety issues, inform the administrators of bullying, seek advice from the school counselor, or share concerns regarding a peer’s well-being.  We have placed “See Something, Say Something” posters around the building, and our free Raider Report app encourages students to “See Something, Send Something”. These student reports are sent directly to our school administrators, school counselor, and our School Resource Officer. Also, our district has a mental health specialist in-house who meets with students regularly and is available for students in crisis.  These initiatives are not cheap, but how can you put a cost of student safety and mental health?

With anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues on the rise among adolescents, it is imperative that schools and administrators are intentional to create ways to care for all the needs of all of the students.  Teachers who spend the most time with their students are often the first and best line of defense to identify concerns that need to be addressed by an administrator or mental health professional. How does your school utilize teachers in theses efforts and address mental health concerns?  I have provided just a few ways our school cares for our students, but if there are additional methods that you have seen to be effective, please share with us in the comments!

This blog was written by David Leenman. Mr. Leenman is in his 14th year of education. He has served in both middle and high schools. Before becoming an assistant principal, Mr. Leenman worked in special education and history and coached basketball, football, and soccer.

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