Last month, three leading pediatric health organizations declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health, citing “soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality.”

At RTI International (RTI) Center for Education Services (CES), we have been hearing from educators and school districts across the country who are sounding the same alarm. Some students are showing increased signs of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, leaving teachers searching for ways to support their students and create a positive learning environment.

It is no surprise that students and educators are struggling. Many students recently returned to school after what, for some, was an isolating year of online learning. Others, however, thrived in this environment. CES provides educators with support by bringing evidence-based practices to life to benefit students and teachers.

Training provides teachers with strategies to support student mental health

Recognizing student mental health challenges and the need to create safe environments for students that are conducive to learning, my colleague, Fredrica Nash, and I recently became certified Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructors. With this certification, we are qualified to train educators and others on how to help students who are experiencing mental health or addiction challenges, or who are in crisis. Following our training, educators become certified Youth Mental Health First Aiders.

With the right systems and tools in place, teachers can co-create an environment that addresses both adult and student social and emotional needs, destigmatizes mental health, and supports a safe and productive learning space.

At the foundation of this approach to children's mental health and social-emotional learning is the Multi-Tiered System of Supports. Tier 1, or core practices, creates a strong foundation from which all students have access to social-emotional learning (SEL) and mental health instruction and strategies. For students that need additional support, Tiers 2 and 3 provide students with additional opportunities for social-emotional skill development through explicit instruction, modeling, practice, and scaffolding.

Implementing an integrated, systemic approach to children's mental health and social-emotional learning

Many teachers ask, “How do educators teach the required curriculum while also providing social and mental health support to their students?” This is a great question.

Education is a work of the heart and the mind. It requires an integration of academics and SEL. By integrating mental health awareness for teachers and students, we cultivate resilient learning communities where all learners have the confidence, skills, and strategies to cope and work through adversity.

RTI’s team of education consultants guides schools as they prioritize teachers’ roles to promote social and emotional competence, which includes focusing on the five core competencies of the Collaborative on Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. In a youth mental health first aid approach, emotional and mental health are expanded to include a school-wide understanding and prioritization of emotional health.

Building skills to recognize & address student mental health warning signss

As Youth Mental Health First Aiders, educators are taught to recognize the signs and symptoms of a potential mental health or substance abuse challenge. Educators learn to listen actively while giving reassurance and providing hope to youth. Lastly, educators will be equipped with knowledge of the appropriate professional support and help available to youth and their families.

By weaving mental health awareness into the curriculum for not only teachers but also students, we can create resilient learners who have the confidence, skills, and tools to cope and work through adversity.

For more on the importance of mental health awareness and social and emotional learning in schools, I invite you to read RTI’s white paper, Social and Emotional Learning: A Mindset for School Safety and Student Security. If you would like more information on how RTI can provide you or your school with Youth Mental Health First Aid training, please contact us at educationservices@rti.org.