Addressing Mental Health Issues in the Classroom

Richa Gaba

Vice - Principal, Apex Public School, Fatehabad, Haryana 

Mental health, and behavioral health for that matter are hot-button issues. In our schools, it is important to monitor the mental health of both teachers and students. The issues of mental health include depression, anxiety, and often, substance abuse, too. Such issues are difficult enough for adults to cope with, how can we expect children and teenagers to cope without help?

Depression is another disorder students may be experiencing. They may display a marked change in their interest in schoolwork and activities. Their grades may drop significantly due to lack of interest, loss of motivation, or excessive absences. They may withdraw and refuse to socialize with peers or participate in classroom-based group projects.

There is often a prevailing image society has of someone with mental illness. The stereotype is of a person who is out of control, with a “crazy” look in their eyes, and is highly dangerous. That characterization is not only incorrect, but also insulting. Mental health disorders come in many sizes and shapes and there is not a one-size-fits-all method of addressing them. According to the Indian Mental Health Association, about 20% of Indians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. However, from my own experience as a teacher, I know that a much larger number of youth are never diagnosed. Educators are often in the front lines of their students’ lives so not only are they sometimes the first to notice symptoms of mental illness, but they strongly influence how students perceive mental health. While teaching, I was always aware of instructional strategies and practices that can help their students meet their full potential. I would like to share these strategies that I have used to address mental health in the classroom. Please keep in mind that every child is different and that with each disorder, there are varying degrees of symptoms and presenting issues.

Mental illness is still very misinterpreted and under-discussed in society and as a result, our youth often suffer in silence. They know that they don’t feel right, but they are also aware that they may be called “crazy” or “nuts” if they come forward. Those labels and any stigmas attached to mental health disorders need to be extinguished and educators need to be at the forefront of such actions. Remind your whole class that those who suffer from mental health issues deserve the same respect and dignity as those who suffer from physical health issues. You can illustrate this through lessons on the effects of stigmatization, prejudice, and discrimination. If a student has been diagnosed and confides in you about their condition, I hope my suggested strategies help students reach their full potential in an inclusive, positive, and empathetic classroom environment.

Here are some suggested strategies for addressing depression:

  • Reduce some classroom pressures.
  • Break tasks into smaller parts.
  • Reassure students that they can catch up. Provide step-by-step instructions and be flexible and realistic with your expectations.
  • Help students use positive statements about their performance and encourage positive and realistic Goal-Setting.
  • Encourage gradual social interaction (i.e./ small group work). Ask students who are more social to help bring that student back into group discussions.
  • Ask parents what would be helpful in the classroom to reduce pressure or motivate the child.
  • Encourage physical activity that will assist the student in getting daily exercise.
  • Never dismiss student feelings. Do not say “you will get over it” or “it’s just a part of growing up.”
  • When students approach you about their depression, ask questions to help understand how they feel and what they are experiencing.
  • Include information on depression in your teaching. Show students that there have been many famous and successful people who have had depression and overcame it.

I will begin my focus with the anxiety disorders that can manifest in different forms. Anxious students may be easily frustrated or be perfectionists, having difficulty completing assignments. Or, they may simply refuse to begin out of fear of failure. This can lead to absenteeism to avoid embarrassment.

A growing number of schools are beginning to realize the importance of mental health education. They are working to create an environment where mental health issues are recognized and support is offered.

School-employed mental health professionals work with teachers to provide support and with parents to better understand students’ needs and implement appropriate support.

Richa Gaba

Vice - Principal, Apex Public School, Fatehabad, Haryana