The Importance of Mental Health Training for Teachers

Smiling teacher with student.

The number of mental health issues among school-age children has ballooned in the last two decades, causing great alarm and leaving educators strategizing how to respond. Since 2013, major depression alone has climbed 65% for girls and 47% for boys, according to a recent report from Blue Cross Blue Shield. Clearly, students need comprehensive support to deal with emotional disturbances that negatively affect their daily lives and potentially hurt their futures as well.

Unfortunately, even as rising numbers of students need help dealing with mental health issues, few educators have the specialized training needed to provide that help. For this reason, many leaders in education recognize the need for comprehensive mental health training for teachers.

The Rise of Mental Health Issues Among School-Age Children

Every year teachers, administrators, and other school educators encounter students experiencing mental health issues that range from suicidal thoughts to stress to extreme anxiety to addiction. Mental Health America reports that 1 in 5 school-age children has a diagnosable mental health issue. Over 10 million students between the ages of 13 and 18 need professional help to address mental health issues.

Statistics now show that suicide is the second leading cause of death for children in the U.S. between the ages of 12 and 17. The number of suicides among those aged 10 to 24 jumped 56% from 2007 to 2017. Pew Research also found that in 2007, 8% of teenagers went through at least one depressive episode. By 2017, that number had risen to 13%.

Students also commonly experience:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Self-injury
  • Opioid abuse

Unfortunately, few teachers have the background to recognize or properly respond to these problems.

The Disproportionate Impact of Mental Health Conditions on Marginalized Students

Mental health issues disproportionately affect students from historically marginalized and oppressed groups. The economic, health, and other disparities these communities face create excessive stress and hardship that can lead to conditions such as depression and substance abuse. Additionally, members of these communities are less likely to have access to mental health support and resources.

Racism is a significant factor in poor mental health. Black students, for instance, more often experience first- or second-hand trauma caused by police violence in their communities, and these traumas can lead to lasting mental health conditions. The failure to protect Black students from discrimination or make structural and systemic changes keeps them in chronically stressful situations. Being more likely to have racial slurs used against them, face discrimination when seeking medical care, and receive harsher punishments in school settings leaves them especially vulnerable to developing emotional disorders.

Additionally, the historic devaluation and marginalization of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) can take a disproportionate toll on their mental health. The accumulation of stress and trauma resulting from outright bigotry, more subtle racism in the form of racial profiling and bias, and lopsided interactions with the justice system weigh heavily on the psyches of BIPOC teachers and students.

Disabilities and differences in gender, sexual orientation, religion, and immigration status can also result in discrimination that harms people’s mental well-being, affecting the mental health of teachers and students as well.

The Impact of Mental Health Issues on Students

Many factors determine a student’s ability to thrive and develop. Mental health plays a significant role. Toxic stress resulting from physical or emotional abuse, neglect, racism, and economic instability can impede the development of key mental functions children need to succeed in school. Older students with these experiences are more likely to have ADHD, explosive anger, and oppositional defiant disorder, while younger children are more likely to display outbursts, aggression, and hyperactivity. Genetics can also influence a student’s mental wellness.

Mental health impacts student attendance, performance, social and emotional development, and graduation rates. For example, higher dropout rates can be linked to mental health and learning disorders. Students receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for emotional disturbances have a 38.7% dropout rate, markedly higher than the 7% average, according to the Child Mind Institute.

A recent review of studies examining the relationship between anxiety and student absenteeism published in Child and Adolescent Mental Health found consistent associations. Research has also shown that increased absenteeism lowers student performance. An Economic Policy Institute study found that low-income students, students with disabilities, Latinx English language learners, and Native American students have the highest rates of absenteeism.

Mental health issues can diminish students’ concentration, ability to prioritize tasks, and executive function, making it much harder to learn and perform well. Additionally, behavioral issues caused by mental health issues can lead to frequent discipline and school avoidance, which interfere with social and emotional development.

The Benefits of Mental Health Training for Teachers

With the stakes so high, leaders in education need to take action to address the growing student mental health crisis. Students spend a large portion of their waking hours in school, giving properly trained teachers many opportunities to observe, recognize, and help address mental health issues. Mental health training for teachers makes it possible to offer meaningful support to students so they can excel in school.

Half of mental illnesses begin before children reach age 14, according to the Child Mind Institute. This means schools can play an instrumental role in intervention. It also means schools must expand their own capacities to create learning environments prepared to support students with mental health conditions. This doesn’t require teachers to become therapists; rather, it involves cultivating the skills and knowledge that allow them to identify risk factors and symptoms, make proper referrals, and respond to students before they reach crisis situations such as suicide attempts.

Mental health training equips teachers with methods for reaching out to students who may be developing substance abuse or mental health problems, while deepening their understanding of why early intervention matters. It also trains teachers to aid students going through mental health challenges or crises.

Mental health training for teachers requires providing teachers with strategies to appropriately respond to distressed students’ needs while also protecting their own mental health. All too often the high emotional toll on teachers can lead to burnout and exhaustion when they don’t have the necessary tools to handle what can be traumatic situations.

According to the American Psychological Association, 93% of teachers express concerns over students’ mental well-being, but the vast majority feel ill-prepared to respond. Mental health training can provide an important first step to addressing student mental health issues. Teachers who receive training learn about essential resources and develop the confidence needed to help students. Additionally, research has shown that training combined with consulting and coaching programs delivered to teachers by mental health professionals can have numerous benefits including:

  • Closer relationships between teachers and students
  • Improved classroom effectiveness
  • Reduced peer victimization

Learn More About How to Combat the Student Mental Health Crisis

Leaders in education seek to eliminate obstacles to student achievement. Finding innovative solutions and taking progressive approaches such as implementing mental health training for teachers is key to solving challenges to equity in education.

Discover how Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program prepares visionary leaders ready to address student mental health.

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American Psychological Association, “Mental Health Issues Increased Significantly in Young Adults Over Last Decade”

Blue Cross Blue Shield, “Major Depression: The Impact on Overall Health”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Data and Statistics on Children's Mental Health

Child and Adolescent Mental Health, “Review: The Association Between Anxiety and Poor Attendance at School—A Systematic Review”

Child Mind Institute, Mental Health Impacts in Schools

Child Trends, “School Mental Health Training for Teachers Leaves Room for Improvement”

Economic Policy Institute, “Student Absenteeism”

Harvard Health Publishing, “How Racism Harms Children”

Harvard Public Health, “Discrimination in America”

Inside Higher Ed, “Pandemic Hurts Student Mental Health”

International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, The Mental Health Crisis in Schools: What Teachers Can Do

Mental Health America, Racism and Mental Health

Mental Health America, Recognizing Mental Health Problems in Children

Mental Health First Aid, “Mental Health First Aid in Schools”

National Federation of State High School Associations, “The Mental Health Crisis in Children and Young Adults”

Pediatrics, “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health”

Pew Research Center, “A Growing Number of American Teenagers—Particularly Girls—Are Facing Depression”