Teachers learn about mental health to help their students
Deedra Finch watched several years ago as a close family friend battled mental health issues — depression, bipolar disorder and addiction.
“That’s when I started to think about what mental health looked like among my students,” said Finch, a Metro Nashville Public Schools educator with 19 years of experience.
School districts and educators are on the front line of meeting most youths’ needs, but like many teachers, Finch had only a basic knowledge of how to handle student mental health. It wasn’t until she sought opportunities to learn in Nashville public schools that she saw how much she didn’t know.
Her eyes were opened, she said. “When it comes to mental health, it is evident at all socio-economic statuses, it is evident in all neighborhoods, not just in Nashville, but all over the world,” Finch said. “It doesn’t always look a certain way, and mental health issues are not always in your face.”
Tennessee requires educators to attend suicide prevention training and a mental health first aid class, which provides an overview of student mental health, according to Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman Sara Gast.
Teachers and a school’s athletic coaches — many who are also educators — are in an ideal position to identify when their students and athletes are having difficulty because they spend so much quality time with them. They often can notice social withdrawal, a decrease in academic or social performance, mood swings or lack of motivation before others do. They also have considerable influence on a student’s life, which can increase the likelihood students will receive timely and effective treatment. But not all teachers and coaches faced with teenagers who have eating disorders or anxiety know how to act.
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, which is the governing body for high school athletics in Tennessee, recognizes the growing need for training coaches on understanding and supporting athletes’ mental health issues. But the TSSAA currently does not offer any mental health education to its statewide membership of more than 6,000 coaches at 426 schools.
To get further skills, many teachers have to seek out other opportunities. Some districts in recent years, such as Metro Nashville Public Schools, are doing more.
Metro Schools provides opportunities to learn about how childhood experiences affect student learning, and it has focused heavily on what is known as social-emotional learning. “We are having more open dialogues in schools about where our students are and where adults are with mental health,” said Kyla Krengel, social-emotional learning director.
Some Nashville schools specialize in addressing student mental health. Fall Hamilton Elementary, for example, is a pilot in trauma-informed student services. In those schools, special attention is paid to students who are subject to traumatic experiences.
Principal Mathew Portell said research proves that mental health affects academics. Because of the research, he said, the opportunities for educators to address mental health in students are growing. The work is difficult, he said, but rewarding. “It’s about meeting the kids where they are and it depends on their circumstances,” Portell said. “One size does not fit all depending on the student’s individualized needs.”
For Finch this year, she said she is finally in a position to be on the forefront of taking her skills to a new height, addressing student mental health and teaching. She was hired this school year as a special education teacher at Fall Hamilton.
“Everyone here at Fall Hamilton is teaching me to do better,” Finch said. “Everyone in this building is a firm supporter.”
And although some schools aren’t quite to the level of Fall Hamilton in its mental health services, Finch said teachers are ready and willing.[Read more at The Tennessean]