Poor mental health can have serious negative outcomes for the health and development of adolescents that can last into adulthood. In 2021, 42 percent of high school students felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped their usual activities1. While the situation can feel overwhelming, there are concrete steps that school leaders can take right now to help reduce risk and support students struggling with mental health.
What can schools do to support student mental health? The Cornell Mental Health seven-step framework2 is a great place to start:
- Foster a healthy educational environment.
- Promote social connectedness and resilience.
- Promote help-seeking behaviors.
- Help identify students in need of care.
- Provide medical and mental health services.
- Deliver coordinated crisis management.
- Restrict access to means of suicide.
This article will discuss each step in more detail, after a review of K-12 student mental health facts.
Part I: the troubling landscape of K-12 mental health
Research paints a stark picture of the state of mental health for students in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2021, 29 percent of high school students experienced poor mental health during the past 30 days. In the same year, 22 percent of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide1.
In light of these statistics, we recommend schools take steps to support student mental health. Taking action can help improve the quality of life, health, and educational outcomes of students with mental health challenges. Support for mental health also helps schools provide a safe and effective learning environment for all students.
Part II: a seven-step framework to mitigate risk and support students
While the state of K-12 student mental health is alarming, the good news is that there are concrete steps schools can take to help mitigate this serious issue. The seven-step framework offered by Cornell Mental Health is an integrated public health approach that draws2 on research of best practices advocated by leading resources in suicide prevention and mental health in education.
1. Foster a healthy educational environment.
A healthy school climate is at the foundation of any education-based mental health initiative. The University of Maryland’s National Center for School Mental Health offers a way to assess and improve a school’s environment through the School Health Assessment and Performance Evaluation System (SHAPE)3. You can also measure your school’s climate through surveys such as those developed by the U.S. Department of Education4.
2. Promote social connectedness and resilience.
Teaching students to recognize their emotions, learn emotional resiliency, and seek help when needed is a key part of helping to alleviate student mental health challenges. According to the CDC, in 2021, 61 percent of high school students felt a sense of school connectedness1, measured by agreeing or strongly agreeing that they felt close to people at school. Additional ways to increase opportunities for emotional connection and mental health lessons to your existing curricula include the following:
- Some schools have implemented mentor programs that allow students opportunities to connect with older peers, teachers, or trusted adults in the community. Mentors serve as role models and advisors as well as offer emotional support.
- Cultivating gratitude builds resiliency and helps students gain perspective on their problems. As part of their regular journal-keeping assignments or as a separate activity, students can keep gratitude journals and participate in daily or weekly discussions of gratitude.
- Connection is crucial, especially for adolescents. Create multiple opportunities to socialize outside of the classroom. Don’t forget that meetings for clubs, volunteer work, charity work, and other endeavors can be in-person or virtual.
For additional ideas on how to help your students build their mental health toolkit, the National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH) offers a guide with activities that foster positive social, emotional, and behavioral skills and well-being of all students, regardless of whether they are at risk for mental health problems.
3. Promote help-seeking behaviors and minimize stigma.
Knowing that mental health issues are common can help alleviate the stigma associated with using mental health services. But many people, particularly in some racially and ethnically diverse communities, still believe that seeking help is a form of weakness, or they think they have to be in crisis before seeking treatment. Schools should help normalize the idea that therapy is a routine part of self-care — like maintenance for a car — rather than something to be sought only in a state of breakdown.
Often, students and families who are suffering don’t know how to get help. For this reason, it’s critical to inform students, staff, and caregivers about available resources. School buildings should display posters, flyers, and pamphlets of services — whether they are self-help or through someone professionally trained. It’s equally important to reach parents and caregivers at home, as well as leverage email newsletters, web resources, and on-campus events (such as orientations, resource fairs, convocations, or family weekend programs) to spread the word about mental health issues and services.
4. Help identify students in need of support.
Don’t forget to provide training on a regular basis — for both school personnel and students — on how to help recognize and support students facing mental health challenges. According to mentalhealth.gov, a student in need of care may exhibit one or more of these behaviors:
- Sadness or withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities for more than two weeks
- Attempts at, or plans of, self-harm
- Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing
- Involvement in fights or expressing a desire to hurt others
- Severe out-of-control behavior that can hurt oneself or others
- Vomiting, refusing to eat, or using laxatives to lose weight
- Intense worries or fears that interfere with daily activities
- Extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still
- Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
- Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
- Drastic changes in behavior or personality
Your school should also create a multidisciplinary intervention team, composed of school mental health providers, teachers, students, parents, and administrators that helps evaluate the severity of risk for individuals and decide on a course of action.
5. Adjust the approach to intervention and utilize all health resources.
When faced with problem behavior, such as emotional dysregulation, unmanaged anger, withdrawal, or self-harm, many schools have switched from punitive to support-based approaches. Students with distress in their daily lives should have access to school psychologists, social workers, and school counselors. These school-based mental health professionals can choose to provide direct services (either individually or as part of a group) and referrals to outside agencies, or both.
6. Deliver coordinated crisis management.
While your school should conduct crisis preparedness drills, carefully consider the level of involvement you expect from students. Exercises and drills that advance adult readiness to meet the unique needs of children in crises and further children’s preparedness and resilience can be effective. While having an emergency plan in place is critical in case of a crisis, having a robust threat assessment process empowers school officials to be proactively prepared.
7. Restrict access to means of violence.
If students cannot access weapons and drugs, the risk of dangerous activity goes down. For this reason, schools should take the lead in helping educate the community about the careful storage of weapons and medications. Parents should ensure students have no access to weapons, including firearms, knives, and other instruments able to cause harm. The suggested acceptable practice is to keep all firearms securely stored and locked. For the same reason, all medications — even seemingly innocuous over-the-counter varieties — should be secured out of kids’ reach.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, firearms are the leading cause of death in children and youth 0 to 24 years of age in the United States. They are also an important cause of injury with long-term physical and mental health consequences3.
Poor mental health is associated with a host of health risks, both during adolescence and into adulthood. Young people who feel hopeless about their future are more likely to engage in behaviors that put them at risk. By being proactive, school administrators can reach more students before they reach crisis — and help make schools safer for everyone.
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