Averting a Student Mental Health Crisis in Our Classrooms

by Alicia Rozum

Jared, a high school Junior had been acting different. Typically an excellent student, he started falling asleep in class or putting his head down on the desk. He seemed “out of it”, his chemistry teacher wrote, referring Jared to his high school’s comprehensive mental health program.

As the school social worker managing this program, I too saw reasons to be worried about Jared’s well-being. Dramatic changes in classroom behavior, even among moody and unpredictable teens, can signal mental health concerns.

Within days of his first referral, I received three more referrals for Jared — one from a friend who said Jared “seemed sad and lonely”; a second from his art teacher reporting that his work had lately been focused on death and destruction; and a final referral from Jared’s sister. His sister, who attended a different high school, confided to her counselor that her brother had been talking about suicide. The counselor had the training to know that this was a serious risk and contacted me immediately.

Concerned, I scheduled an appointment that week. I learned Jared was indeed contemplating suicide and had a plan to kill himself that weekend. In response, mental health program staff immediately activated the school’s crisis intervention protocols: Jared was assessed by a mental health professional, his family was contacted, and he was transported to the hospital for treatment.

More than 20 percent of youth have a diagnosed mental health disorder in the United States, making school-based care critical

After his release from the hospital, Jared was paired with our on-site mental health therapist to receive ongoing counseling. Two years later, Jared graduated from high school and was on his way to college.

In many ways, the comprehensive mental health program on site at this high school and the collective concern of his two high school teachers and two fellow students helped save Jared’s life. The program had several components that made it successful:

● All students had access, not just those in special education.
● The program was publicized to students through classroom training, activities, and posters around campus.
● Teachers stayed informed via professional development and consultation.
● Students received crisis intervention, one-on-one counseling, and case management services on site.

With more than 20 percent of youth having a diagnosed mental health disorder in the United States according to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control, these critical components should be replicated in other school districts, as well. Mental health professionals on campus can help schools prevent and address crises, train teachers in effective classroom strategies and ways to support struggling students, and involve youth in delivering services that best meet their needs.

To learn more about best practices for building comprehensive school-based mental health programs, check out Why Student Mental Health Matters or contact Alicia Rozum, project director, mental health, at the California School-Based Health Alliance.

blogAlicia Rozum is the Project Director for Mental Health at the California School-Based Health Alliance – an organization dedicated to improving the health and academic success of children and youth by advancing health services in schools.