Opinion: I’m a Utah teacher. We need more mental health resources for our students.

Teachers need tools that they can implement at a moment’s notice.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A class period bell spills students into one of the original hallways of the aging West High School on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

As a language arts teacher in Utah, I have a unique opportunity to see the way students view themselves in their own words. I get to read their logic, help them understand their opinions and watch as they grow in their capacity to communicate who they are to the world.

It is a humbling privilege to read the minds of my students made manifest on paper or on screens. It is also a terrifying reality check concerning the mental health climate among my students.

In 2021, the World Health Organization reported that “depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.” As of February 2023, in it’s biannual report on Youth Behavior Risks, the Center for Disease Control reported the highest rates of persistent hopelessness and sadness amongst teens in a decade, as well as an increase of suicide attempts in the teenage population.

As a teacher, I am tasked with asking my students to better themselves through careful study and skill practice as defined by the state standards; however, I also take on the heavier task of helping a growing number of my students simply make it through the week.

At the classroom level, an increasing number of my fellow teachers are reporting that they don’t feel adequately prepared to address their students’ mental health needs when those students are experiencing crises. School districts have been quick to respond to reported desires for more professional development regarding student mental health support, but teachers are struggling to find specific tools and takeaways necessary to make addressing the “Big Issues” a more approachable endeavor.

Organizations like ClassroomMentalHealth.org, which is sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Depression Center and the World Health Organization, work to provide more accessible resources to teachers that help make tackling student mental health issues more manageable, but reading an article about the importance of a positive environment is not the same as training a teacher to establish policies, procedures, attitudes and approaches in education that allow students to receive the benefits of that coveted positivity. These resources do exist, but they are not making it into the hands of educators.

Lacking the training to implement positivity in an environment that requires students to address their shortcomings in order to see educational progress, many teachers are struggling under the compounded weight of juggling their students’ mental health needs with their own. The scary reality is that teachers who have had limited success finding ways to manage their own mental health don’t have the foundational knowledge or skills to help students process or manage their mental health needs. What they do have, however, is empathy and a gut-wrenching compulsion to do something, anything, to help.

Many schools statewide have referral systems, counseling departments and on-site psychologists to help address student needs as they are identified. At the end of the day, though, this is likely a small team of people who are tasked with addressing the ever-changing landscape of school culture, as well as the way at-risk students both perceive and respond to that culture. These mental-health professionals do an amazing job of making themselves available to teachers so teachers can report concerns they have in the classroom with regards to mental health, but students don’t always have room in their schedules for regular meetings with counselors and psychologists during the school day, nor do the counselors and psychologists always have room in their schedules to help every single student who is identified as needing their support, especially if it’s an emergency.

A few teacher roles in mental health support are defined by the National Center for School Mental Health, and include both the recognition and referral of students who are in need of mental health services, as well as the use of strategies to support students with mental health concerns in the classroom. While most teachers are able to recognize and refer, it is the support strategies for which we are the most hungry.

Teachers need tools that they can implement at a moment’s notice and skills they can work toward developing so they have the chance to address student crises as they encounter them throughout the school day, in the hallways, in the classroom and in the moments when their students need it most.

Jamie Marble

Jamie Marble is an English and language arts teacher at Bear River High School in Box Elder School District. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Southern Utah University in 2020, and she started her career teaching 8th grade at Canyon View Middle School in Cedar City as public schools returned to in-person instruction in the post-pandemic world. Jamie now teaches 10th grade ELA, as well as AP literature and composition at Bear River High School, where she makes every possible effort to help her students process the ups and downs of the teenage experience.

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