Mental Health Awareness in the Classroom

July 11, 2017

Famous comedian and actor, Robin Williams, once stated, “All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul, and they will never notice how broken you really are.” Sadly, these painful words mirrored Williams’s true feelings, as he succumbed to suicide after a long struggle with addiction and mental health.

Unfortunately, celebrities are not the sole sufferers when it comes to emotional well-being. Many adolescent students also need to conquer this battle, especially those with overwhelming external circumstances (i.e. sexual orientation confusion, bullying, disciplinary problems) and adverse childhood experiences (i.e. abuse, neglect, divorce, death).

As both a classroom teacher and administrator, I’ve witnessed a fair share of students who as pre-teens are already struggling with mental health issues. I’ll never forget one little 6th grade boy this past year. Although always polite and respectful, this student did not like to do his homework. In fact, it drove his teachers nuts. However, his team made a reasonable plan and decided to have him catch up during his lunch period. One day he didn’t show up, and his math teacher stomped down to the cafeteria, put a finger in his face, and stated, “How dare you skip your lunch detention! I’m trying to help you!” However, little did this teacher know, he had a story and math help was the least of his worries.  His older brother sexually abused him and later that week was being released from prison. On top of this, his father recently committed suicide, leaving him and his brothers with a single mom with numerous issues of her own. Simply put, this one student faced more trauma than any 12 year old should ever have to.  He was understandably depressed, but he covered it well. It was masked as apathy, something very challenging for caring and involved educators.

Sadly, many students who struggle with mental illness feel shame and do not reach out for help due to the social stigma associated with it. North Dakota is no exception. According to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior survey, roughly a third of students struggle with depression and anxiety. Ten percent have attempted suicide. Even with the best proactive measures, this is sadly a reality across the nation.

There is definitely a new factor in regards to mental health: the power of social media. Although this can be incredibly valuable in many ways, it is also undeniably dangerous for impulsive teens. In fact, it sometimes consumes administrators’ days. Even though many messages, snaps, tweets, and posts are published outside school hours, they inevitably trickle their way into the school day and certainly affect student learning. What student wants to read Romeo and Juliet when her mom just tweeted, “Not sure I can do this much longer..?”

Although rewarding, education can be incredibly exhausting. Whether it’s aligning an outdated curriculum, correcting overdue papers, or calling unsupportive parents, there is always that never-ending to-do list. Between completing those tasks and actually teaching the content, there is still one job left that is undeniably the most important – building strong relationships with students. However, this simply may not be enough anymore.

My particular school district recognizes this and knows we need to make a significant, systematic change in order to provide our students with a trauma sensitive environment. Currently our policies honestly do not align with what our students need.  For example, we are probably guilty of being more punitive than restorative. We should also be building social-emotional learning all of the time, not solely when counselors imbed their monthly lessons in classrooms or run groups for those courageous enough to admit they need additional support. In 2017-2018, our district is piloting “Trauma Sensitive Schools,” which hopefully will be the answer we desperately need.  Roughly 12% of our males and 28% of our females considered suicide last year. That is a crisis we can no longer ignore. This will entail training in intentional social and emotional learning, responsive classrooms, and restorative practices.  Hopefully, with these measures, we as educators will not only be able to identify an injured soul, but actually help mend it.

Amber Rudolph, NBCT

In 2004 Amber began her teaching career in the very district she attended as a student, West Fargo Public Schools. While teaching high school English, Amber returned to NDSU and earned a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction (2008). As an avid learner and reflective practitioner, Amber became a National Board Certified teacher in English Language Arts, Early Adolescence (2011). Soon after Amber’s interest in educational leadership prompted her to continue her schooling, and she received her Secondary Principal’s credential (2013). Amber then transitioned into administration and became the Assistant Principal at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo. In a diverse school of over 1100 students, Amber’s primary responsibility is the master schedule. Although Amber is devoted to education, she also has another important role – being a mom, as nothing satisfies her more than spending time with her family.