Addressing Mental Health Disorders in the Classroom
Originally published March 2013
By Bruce Van Stone
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 Canadian Mental Health Association, about 20% of Canadians 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.
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.
Here are some strategies that I have used effectively for students suffering anxiety:
- Allow flexible deadlines when they find a particular assignment worrisome.
- Encourage accountability and follow-through, but not in ways that promote stress and discomfort.
- Provide choices for assignments and help them feel like they have some control over their environment.
- Ensure they write down assignment instructions correctly.
- Post the daily class schedule so students can know what to expect.
- Encourage involvement in extra-curriculars to help alleviate some anxiousness through exercise and a sense of social belonging.
- Model calmness and self-control.
Bipolar disorder is another illness that is seen by teachers in the classroom. Students may experience fluctuations in mood, energy levels, effort, and motivation that may occur many times a day, daily, in specific cycles, or during certain seasons of the year. As a result, a student with bipolar disorder may have difficulty concentrating, understanding assignments that have many parts or that have complex directions and may become defiant when confronted about their classwork.
Here are some suggested instructional strategies:
- Divide assigned readings into manageable segments and monitor the student’s progress, checking comprehension periodically.
- When a student’s energy is low, reduce academic demands; when their energy is high, increase them.
- Identify a place where the student can go for privacy until he or she regains self-control.
- If a student becomes defiant, do not argue with them; instead, concentre on calming him or her down.
- Regularly check in with the student’s parents so that you can share your observations and better understand their cycles of mood fluctuations more effectively.
- If the student is willing, talk to him or her about their cycles and how they would prefer you to respond to their episodes.
- Correct other students who attempt to “stigmatize” or “label” a classmate who is experiencing mood or energy fluctuations.
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.
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.
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.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert nor a clinician on this subject matter, but instead have used resources available to me while teaching in the classroom to implement such strategies. Here are the two resources I used for the article and in practice: Canadian Mental Health Association (www.cmha.ca), and Hazelden (www.hazelden.org).
Bruce Van Stone is a Learning Specialist-Bullying Awareness and Prevention at the New Brunswick Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.