This post is part of the Mental Health Monday series, in which iustitia examines one aspect of the intersections between mental health and the law. You can find previous posts here.
Imagine you are a student in university. You are facing the challenges all students experience. The stress from schoolwork. The stress to make friends. The stress of trying to fit in. But on top of it all, you have been battling anxiety and depression. At some point, you break and think “I just cannot do this anymore.” The suicidal thoughts take over your entire being and all you want to do is talk to someone about your emotions and fears, so you reach out to teachers or administrators. Then you receive this message from your university. “It is important that you refrain from discussing these issues with other students and use the appropriate resources. If you involve other students in suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions you will face disciplinary action.”
This type of policy violates students’ free-speech rights by “prohibiting them from engaging in private discussions about a particular subject.” Moreover, this type of policy places students in a position of greater mental health risk, particularly based on what is known about suicidal risk factors. Communication is often a critical first step in seeking help and this frequently occurs between friends, where students are more comfortable speaking. “The increasing prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts in college students calls for increasing access to mental health services, not adding to stigma with a policy which promotes increased shame for the depressed and suicidal student.” This type of policy increases the risk of suicide by decreasing opportunities for early identification and intervention. Universities should be trained in how to help students that face these issues rather than contribute to the problem. One avenue available to accomplish this is through the individuals that see students on a daily basis: teachers.
Teaching students is among the most important and difficult occupations in the world. Teachers must address the social and emotional needs of students and serve as the first line of defense when students face mental health concerns. They cannot replace mental health professions, but can be one of the most important group of people in identifying mental health concerns. However, teachers are rarely provided with the training necessary to properly detect mental health disorders in students. Teachers are often unprepared to identify students in mental health crises and, therefore, are unable to direct them to the resources available.
Teachers are required to attend a professional development session on mandatory reporting laws for child abuse and neglect, however, there is no further education provided on how to identify an array of mental health issues that do not stem from physical abuse. Students will not properly be able to learn and reach their highest academic potential if they are unable to deal with the mental health problems they are facing.
“One of five children currently have or will experience a severe mental disorder.” Most experience these mental health problems before young adulthood – half of all people the onset of symptoms occur by age 14, 75 percent by age 24. Lack of appropriate mental health interventions and treatment can often mean the difference between life and death. As children and young adults spend the majority of their time at school, teachers are an intricate part of the mental health services available to children. Therefore, training of teachers is vital to ensure proper treatment for school-aged children.
A possible solution to this growing problem comes in the form of evidence-based mental health training programs that promote appropriate student behavior by proactively defining, teaching, and supporting positive student conduct. These programs provide strategies that can be highly effective when teachers are trained in the basics of mental health interventions and treatments.
By implementing mandatory training programs for teachers, where they are given instruction on how to identify mental health concerns as well as how to talk to students about the resources available, students will experience a decreased risk of suicide as well as a lower chance of their mental health issues spiraling out of control. It is imperative that students are permitted to talk to their classmates, teachers, and school employees about the mental issues concerns they are facing to ensure that they obtain the help they need. Students’ first amendment rights must be protected and this will help to ensure that their mental health is safeguarded as well.