During the course of a school year, even a school day, teachers spend more time with adolescents and teens than anyone else. Because the average age of onset for serious mental illnesses (including depression, panic and anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia) is seventeen, teachers, coaches and other school personnel are likely the first to recognize subtle changes in a young person developing a disease of the brain. Unfortunately, most of these professionals aren’t trained to interpret those symptoms or to recognize their significance.
A teen in the early phase of mental illness might look like a defiant child, a lazy student, a trouble maker. That’s why it’s important for educators to have basic information that enables them to recognize illness for what it is, and to separate illness from intentional behavior. This checklist should do just that.
Symptoms of emerging mental illness include:
• Sudden, unexplained drop in grades and school performance • Change in school persona, i.e. the all-American kid who suddenly “goes Goth” • Change in social circle/friends • Focus on death, violence, morbidity • Withdrawal from normal or previously pleasurable activities • Undue, continuing anxiety or worry • Lack of personal hygiene and self-care • Extreme high or low feelings or moods • Tension-caused physical problems (backaches, headaches, jaw clenching, stomachaches) • Excessively strong feelings of anger, guilt, or remorse • Persistent negative or overblown positive self-image or outlook • Substantial, rapid weight gain or loss • Too much or too little sleep • Self-harm (cutting, burning, head-banging, punching walls) • Alcohol and/or drug abuse • Family history of mental illness, alcohol abuse, or addiction
When an educator notices several of these symptoms or behaviors, prompt action will help the student toward diagnosis and/or treatment.
Consider the following:
• Talk to the student. Share your concern and offer to help. Encourage the student to communicate with his parents and to seek help from his counselor or doctor.
• Make yourself available to the student. It often takes time for a sick and scared teen to open up to another person.
• Make a list of the observed signs and symptoms, adding notes that might be pertinent to getting help for the student. Remember, this is an aide to access appropriate help for a student in need. Dispose of judgmental attitudes and preconceived notions. Stick to facts and observations.
• Contact the school guidance counselor or administrator, sharing the list of signs, symptoms and notes that can be used to create a plan for assisting the student and his family.
Once support is offered to a needy student, be sensitive to the fact that mental health concerns still carry the burden of social stigma. Often we add to that stigma without realizing it by making judgments and assumptions based on our own life experience.
When offering support to a young person with a mental illness, adhere to these guidelines:
• Remove feelings of blame or guilt about the source of the student’s mental health concerns. The fact is, most mental illnesses are genetic, NOT a result of childhood trauma or inappropriate parenting.
• Recognize and acknowledge that parental denial and anger may exist.
• Communicate empathy and compassion for the student and the parent’s circumstances.
• Provide parents with resources and share with them that education and treatment are vital to living well with mental illness.
• Take a problem-solving approach to addressing mental health concerns. Stick to facts and viable solutions.
• Recognize the value of parents, school personnel, support providers and medical staff working as a team.
Worldwide, one in five students will ultimately be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. School officials and educators often know something is wrong before anyone else suspects a problem. A proactive and engaged teacher can dramatically alter the course of illness and treatment. The right attitude combined with the right approach can make all the difference in the life of a seriously ill student. The ensuing actions may even safe his life.