By Macaela Mackenzie
Minding students’ mental health is just as important as monitoring their physical health. “If we don’t take care of our mental health, we may not be able to reach our goals, maintain good relationships, and function well in day-to-day situations,” says Dr. Chrissy Salley, a psychologist in New York who works with students of all ages. For high school students, class expectations, social issues, after-school activities and responsibilities, and thoughts about the future can take a toll on their mental health and well-being.
Parents, administrators, and teachers all play an important role in helping students access mental health services, both as a preventive measure and as a way to treat any issues they’re facing.
Therapy is backed by a compelling arsenal of research
There’s strong evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help students better handle a variety of mental health issues and stressors, according to an analysis of more than 200 studies (Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2012). The researchers found that CBT helped those struggling with anxiety, anger issues, stress, bulimia, and other mental health issues.
Even though talking about mental health is becoming less stigmatized, taking steps to engage in a therapeutic process can still be confusing and intimidating for students. Here are five strategies for supporting students’ mental health.
1 Normalize therapy
Lots of teens report mental health issues—20 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds have a mental health condition, 11 percent have a mood disorder, and 8 percent battle anxiety, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Few people look forward to therapy, but students should be aware that therapy exists to help them, not to judge them,” says Zachary Alti, LMSW, a psychotherapist and professor at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York. Support students by helping to reduce stigma surrounding mental health services. “I’d encourage students to keep an open mind and try it,” says Dr. Salley.
2 Teach students that mental health is just as important as physical health
“Therapy is like physical exercise,” says Alti. Just like hitting the gym is good for everyone’s physical health—not just those with diabetes or heart disease—seeing a therapist can benefit everyone’s mental health.
3 Meet students where they are
In high school, students are starting to navigate major life changes and setting significant goals—that needs to be addressed from a mental health perspective, according to the experts. “Therapy can be useful by helping people acquire a better understanding of themselves and develop healthy habits,” says Dr. Salley. Remember that “even positive changes can be stressful,” she says. “Having someone to talk to can be helpful, especially as you encounter new situations and people.”
4 Guide students to school and community resources
One of the biggest barriers for students can be figuring out where to start. Make information about school counseling services readily available and widely publicized—including exactly how to schedule a visit with a counselor, how to access off-campus mental health services, and what they can expect during the visit.
For students preferring to speak to a mental health professional outside of school, schools can provide resources to help parents and students find local providers; for example, school-recommended therapists in your area or a search tool on your school’s website. Parents can also check with their health insurance provider to find a list of therapists covered by their plan.
5 Reinforce confidentiality
Students may be worried that certain things they share with a counselor might get back to parents or school staff, which could make them less willing to speak to a mental health professional. “A therapist isn’t allowed to do this unless the student poses a threat to themselves or others,” says Alti. “A therapist’s effectiveness is dependent on maintaining trust.” Unless a therapist believes the student is in imminent danger (e.g., at risk of being seriously harmed or harming themselves or others), they typically won’t share what the student says. However, students and parents may want to talk with the therapist early on about what types of information a child may disclose that the therapist would feel obligated to share with a parent or report to the authorities.