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Helping Teens with Mental Health Conditions

Written by: Melissa Lyon
Edited by: Melissa Carmona

Medically Reviewed by: Eric Patterson, LPC

guidance counselor helping male student in classroom

As a teacher or school counselor, helping a teen with mental health conditions is a challenging but rewarding task that requires resources and teamwork.

Whether from depression, anxiety, autism, low self-esteem, high social stressors or other psychological issues, teens encounter many challenges to their mental health and well-being. The best treatments work to assess and address issues in all phases of a person’s life including at home, in the community and at school.

Mental health treatment within the school is complex as many parents and students are interested in maintaining their privacy. On the other hand, schools may be interested in identifying students in need to provide them with in-school psychological services or to offer outside referrals.

The quest to help high school students with mental health conditions is invaluable, but parents, educators, counselors and students must be prepared to navigate issues of confidentiality, protected information, involuntary treatment and restrictive environments. Focusing on the long-term health of the student must always be the top priority.

Relevant Laws

Not only do professionals and parents have to concern themselves with the best interests of the student and applicable ethical issues, but they also must address and adhere to relevant laws. These laws are complicated because federal, state, and local laws often differ and overlap.

Any adult interested in helping a student with their mental health should be aware of confidentiality laws like:

  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): a federal law that governs issues of medical privacy.
  • Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA): passed in 1974 to ensure health and educational information is confidential and should not be re-disclosed to other parties.
  • State Privacy Laws: state laws may not match the federal rules controlled by HIPAA, which requires the professional to follow through with the most restrictive levels of confidentiality.
  • State Minor Consent Laws: each state enacts stands involving the minor’s age, type of care, type of information discussed and professionals who are covered. For example, a 12-year-old in Illinois can consent to mental health treatment, but only five sessions. In Pennsylvania, the minor must be 14 or older.

Each person or group should take time to understand their allowances and limitations to ensure they are helping the student in acceptable and appropriate ways. These laws may seem restrictive at times, but they aim to keep minors safe.

How School Affects Students With Mental Health Conditions

For many students with mental health issues, the impact of going to school can prove to be a source of great stress. For others, school can offer protection to stressors occurring at home. Because of this, school can increase or decrease mental health symptoms.

A student with depression could see school as a very negative place as they are consistently teased by their peers and made to feel inadequate socially, physically and academically. These environmental stressors will only reinforce and intensify symptoms of depression for the student.

Alternatively, a student with a chaotic and dangerous homelife may view school as a predictable and safe environment that provides mental health support. Here, adults and students follow expected rules and patterns. Coming to school could help teach this student healthy coping skills while limiting and stabilizing symptoms.

How Mental Illness Can Affect Students at School

Mental health disorders have the power to make basic behaviors like going to school, maintaining good grades and getting along with peers nearly impossible. With one in five students struggling with mental health issues and half of all mental health conditions emerging before age 14, students could be affected by mental illness in countless ways.

Depression has the power to influence a student’s mood, energy, motivation and sleep, all of which greatly impact a person’s school experience. They could hope to avoid school by frequently staying home or by isolating themselves in class. These students may appear tired, withdrawn, sad, demotivated and struggling to perform at capacity.

A student with anxiety could act very differently. Perhaps this student uses their worry and stress towards performing well academically, socially or athletically. They could channel their anxiety into overachieving and appear to be a happy and successful student. Internally, they could be struggling with severe symptoms of anxiety that go unnoticed.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) makes paying attention and concentrating very challenging, especially when the subject matter is not appealing or engaging. While at home playing video games or interacting with friends, students with ADHD can do well. When made to sit still, focus and maintain classroom expectations, these students struggle.

Speaking With Students and Communicating With Parents

As a mental health or education professional, speaking with students and parents can be problematic for various reasons. It’s essential that students see the professional as someone who is on their side and working to improve their long-term situation, even if that means making things uncomfortable at first. As mentioned earlier, the relevant laws and guidelines must always guide the process.

Privacy is difficult to maintain in a school setting. Other students may jump to conclusions when a student is speaking with you in the hall or called to your office. It is your duty to reduce these risks and ensure confidentiality so a healthy, therapeutic relationship based on legal and ethical conventions can be fostered.

Speaking with the parents creates separate issues regarding legal and ethical responsibilities. Before talking to the student’s parent or guardian, consider:

  • Am I legally required to speak to this person?
  • Am I ethically required to speak to this person?
  • Will speaking to the parent jeopardize the therapeutic relationship with the student?
  • Do I need a signed release of information from the student to allow communication?
  • What information do I share with the adult?
  • What information do I share with the student?

Like any other conversation, artfully managing the content and flow of the discussion is key. As long as your strategy is grounded in state and federal laws and the standard operating procedure of the school, your chance for success grows.

Ways To Work With Students

After the student or parent consents to treatment, the real work can begin. Working with students should be fun, engaging, helpful and focused on benefiting the student in and out of school. To help students, educators should:

  • Be mindful of their condition. An assessment of the student’s personality, symptoms and situation is necessary to understand their experiences. Interventions that work well for one student may not work for another based on diagnosis, stressors and coping skills.
  • Create a stress-free classroom. Does the student struggle with academics in the classroom, or are there more social stressors? Identify and shape the classroom setting to be more supportive and conducive to learning. Moving their seat or giving more time for tests can make a positive change with little effort. During this transition, be sure to maintain the student’s privacy by not drawing unwanted attention to their condition.
  • Try alternative options for accommodations. When simple classroom modifications are not enough to meet the students’ needs, they may benefit from a more formalized plan of actions. An individualized education plan (IEP) or a 504 plan can create a standardized course of intervention used throughout the school. Suggest and offer these tools to students and parents as appropriate.
  • Research and try out innovative learning programs. Consult outside sources for new and innovative techniques to manage students’ mental health issues at school. Plenty of options exist, including the Pax Good Behavior Game, Positive Action Program, and Raising Healthy Children Program. Experiment with these systems to find something that fits your natural tendencies.
  • Celebrate their uniqueness and good qualities. Too often, children who act, think or feel differently from their peers are made to feel “wrong” or “bad” for their individuality. By shifting the school environment towards celebrating differences and unique perspectives, the classroom becomes a place of acceptance rather than ridicule. This approach teaches inclusion to all the students, not only the ones with mental health concerns.
  • Get parents involved. Parents are a vital source of information regarding the student’s symptoms and behaviors. Though the process takes extra effort, it is worthwhile to open the lines of communication with parents and guardians so you can gather information and state your concerns.
  • Explore teletherapy apps and online support. Many students use their phones as an opportunity to waste time, ignore their problems or avoid their stress, so steering students towards healthy mental health apps and online support systems could shift the focus to something positive. Next Generation Village even offers teletherapy services for students 13 years and older.
  • Practice self-care. Being motivated to help students address their mental health needs is a noble task for educators, but extending too much energy and emotion can result in burnout. Be sure to take care of your own needs and self-care while balancing the goals for your students.

Resources for Teachers and Counselors

At Next Generation Village, we offer valuable resources to any teacher or counselor in or out of a school setting. Contacting the community outreach team can connect you with helpful tools to improve your skills in the classroom.

You can also explore a range of other resources like:

If you or a teen you care about could benefit from addiction treatment and co-occurring mental health treatment, it may be the right time to contact Next Generation Village. Doing so can streamline the process of receiving specialized help for anyone aged 12 to 17.

Sources:

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village and The Recovery Village aim to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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