For Educators

During the school week, many adolescents and young adults spend more time around their teachers, school administrators, professors, etc than they do with their families. However, teachers’ time and resources are often stretched thin, and they don’t always have the sufficient familiarity with students to recognize when a teen is hurting or in trouble.


The following resources and information was developed for educators to help recognize mental and emotional problems and offer help to their students.

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Noticing Symptoms

Trying to tell the difference between what expected behaviors are and what might be the signs of a mental illness isn't always easy. There's no easy test or one-size-fits-all approach that can let someone know if there is mental illness or if actions and thoughts might be typical behaviors of a person or the result of a physical illness. Each illness has its own symptoms, but common signs of mental illness in adults and adolescents can include the following:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty keeping up with hygiene or a clean desk/room
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
  • Overuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
Mental health conditions can also begin to develop in young children. Because they’re still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral. Symptoms in children may include the following:
  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Frequent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

Creating Safety Zones

To support youth mental health and reduce suicides, we need to create safety zones: supportive spaces where they feel comfortable sharing their concerns. At home or at school, young people need to feel that they’re not judged for what they’re going through. They also need to know that professional help is available when they need it. Each of us can contribute to that mental health safety zone in our own community. We can learn the warning signs associated with youth suicide, as well as what we can do to help someone in crisis. Some warning signs might be obvious. For example, when a child says they’d be better off dead or starts to give away their belongings. Other signs that are less clear might include sudden changes in their behavior or academic performance, or a preoccupation with death. It's also important that we provide programs, opportunities and activities that engage and support youth mental health. One example is a high school in North Carolina that operates a youth mental health support group. The faculty-supported club provides a supportive environment for students to share their thoughts and feelings. It was started by a student who attempted suicide, and afterward wanted to help her fellow students and help reduce the stigma of youth suicide. We can all make ourselves more aware of what to watch for and how to respond in a supportive way when young people reach out for help. By doing so, we can not only eliminate the taboos around talking about suicide, we can help reduce the prevalence of youth suicide in our communities. Knowing that they have somewhere to turn can make all the difference for a young person as they cope with today’s unique pressures. Even more, it can help them build a strong foundation for mental health as they transition into adulthood and throughout their lives.

Types of School Supports to Help Students

School can be a challenge for students with mental health conditions. Some students struggle to concentrate, sit still or follow directions. Others might have difficulty learning due to depression, anxiety, mood swings, psychosis or behavior caused by trauma. For too many of our students, their symptoms result in discipline — such as out-of-school suspension — rather than support. To complicate the picture, many students with mental health conditions also have co-occurring learning disabilities.

There is hope for students with mental health needs as there are several ways to secure academic and behavioral support. The supports available in public schools include general education interventions, Section 504 plans and special education services. Which type of support is most appropriate for a student depends on that student’s unique strengths and needs.
General Education Interventions General education interventions apply to many students, and depending on the state you live in, these supports may be referred to as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), Response to Intervention (RtI) or other terms.

These supports can address academic or behavioral needs. Broad interventions, such as school-wide behavior plans, are put into place for all students. A school-wide behavior plan may provide for entire classrooms to receive positive rewards for following school-wide rules. Based on data collected by the MTSS or RtI team, more intensive supports can then be put in place for those students not having success with the school-wide interventions.

Students needing more intensive interventions may need individual behavior intervention plans (BIPs). A BIP may include ways to explicitly teach a student appropriate behaviors, individualized reinforcers and individualized responses to inappropriate behaviors. Data is then collected on the effectiveness of the intervention. If students continue to struggle, more intensive interventions are put in place, or they may be referred to the school’s Section 504 or special education (IEP) team.

Tips for securing effective general education interventions:

  • Ask to see the data on how your student is doing with the school-wide academic or behavioral interventions put in place. If your student is struggling, ask for more intensive and individualized MTSS or RtI interventions.
  • Remember that any student can have a BIP if needed.
  • Ask to meet with your student’s MTSS or RtI team if you are concerned about your student’s progress.
Section 504 Supports: More formal general education supports exist under what is known as Section 504. Section 504 refers to a part of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and prohibits disability discrimination.

A Section 504 plan for a student most commonly consists of accommodations that a student needs. For example, a student with ADHD may need preferential seating away from distractions. A student with significant anxiety may benefit from staggered class transitions, so that he or she changes classes without many students in the hallway. Other accommodations may include extended time on classwork or assessments, a visual schedule or use of fidgets for students with hyperactivity.

Tips for securing effective Section 504 supports:
  • In broad strokes, a student is eligible for a Section 504 plan if they have a disability that interferes with learning or another major life activity. Mental health conditions are recognized as disabilities under Section 504.
  • A parent can ask for a Section 504 eligibility or plan revision meeting at any point.
  • Be creative about what kind of accommodations may be helpful to your student! The school is not limited to using the most common accommodations. Think about what may help your student succeed, including what strategies have been helpful at home.
Special Education Supports: The most extensive supports for students are termed “special education.” Special education specifically refers to supports under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Like Section 504, the IDEA is a federal law; every state also has implementing regulations or policies.

Students receiving special education supports have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP lists a student’s strengths and needs, how a student is performing in each area of need (this includes academics as well as behavior), what accommodations a student needs to be successful (much like in a Section 504 plan), and what “specially designed instruction” a student needs.

Most commonly, specially designed instruction refers to instruction by a special educator to meet a student’s unique needs based on an IEP. This can occur in a variety of settings. It may look like a special education teacher joining a general education class to co-teach with a general education teacher. It may also look like a student receiving instruction from a special education teacher in a smaller group setting for part or all of the day. At its most restrictive, specially designed instruction may include instruction in hospitals, residential settings or at home.

Two key legal requirements of special education are that special education must: 1) offer students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education, meaning that a student should be making meaningful progress, and 2) be offered in the least restrictive environment, meaning that a student is learning with non-disabled peers as much as is appropriate. There are many other aspects of special education, including discipline protections.

Tips for securing effective special education supports:
  • If you think your student needs an IEP, submit a written request for an IEP evaluation to the principal, include the date of the request and keep a copy for yourself.
  • Learn the IEP evaluation timelines in your state by searching for your state’s special education policies online.
  • If your child has an IEP but is still struggling, ask for an IEP review/revision meeting. A student with an IEP can also have a BIP. Any IEP/BIP review meeting should be scheduled at a time convenient for you to attend.
Note that during coronavirus-related virtual learning, public schools should still be providing the supports in a student’s IEP or Section 504 plan to the greatest extent possible.

For more information about school supports, you may contact your local school district or your state’s disability advocacy organization.

Tips for Educators

Supporting Back to School Wellness How to Promote Mental Health Awareness in School: This blog article from NAMI offers messaging examples on how to normalize talking about mental illness in school. Mental Health Screening: This page from the NAMI website directly addresses mental health screening in schools. For Educators: This page from details what signs can help teachers and other school staff recognize when students are in crisis. It also offers advice on developing mental health programs and creating safe classrooms. Resources for Kids and Teens: This page features links to dozens of academic and educational resources to help educators (and other adults) connect kids to the help they need. Campus Resource Poster: This poster can be printed to be used on school campuses with a handy QR code and tear-aways with essential mental health resources, including the NAMI HelpLine. Through the QR code, students can save these numbers right to their phones’ contacts. A Caring Presence: This page provides information on how teachers and other adults can recognize depression in teens and help them cope with it.

Say It Out Loud Toolkit

Say it Out Loud Toolkit: This toolkit gives adults the tools they need to hold conversations about mental health with with teens and young adults. The toolkit includes:

  • A short film featuring three teen's experiences.
  • A discussion guide.
  • A narrated presentation for the facilitator.
  • Fact sheets and information about connecting with your local NAMI.

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