Preventing mental health issues among students and protecting them from those problems must be a top priority. Covid changed the playing field for mental health problems, with virtually all students and educators affected in one way or another. Many students who never needed mental health support now do, and resources are scarce. As educators, caregivers, and local leaders, it is our responsibility to help our young people deal with mental health problems and protect them from further harm.

While many mental health issues might appear “invisible,” with good information and practice, caring adults can learn to notice the signs and step in. This starts by recognizing the negative forces that threaten a child's learning and well-being, such as less than optimal living conditions; poor health and nutrition; and lack of consistency in going to school. When we see students through those lenses, we know that they are vulnerable and may need help. Here are three questions caring adults can ask themselves to create a positive mental environment for their children and students.

Are adults keyed in to notice signs of stress and distress?

If we don’t see the problem, we can’t fix it. We need to learn about the early signs of mental distress, including depression, anxiety, and anger. If a child hits the wall or shuts down, it’s our job to take the time to slow things down and give them space to feel, think, and talk about what’s happening. Good or bad, adults are role models. We need to look at our own behavior when children seem mentally unwell, retreating or spiraling downward. Are we making things better or worse in how we respond to them? Is our help sufficient or do we need to connect them with mental health counselors and experts?

What have we put in place to protect young people and keep them mentally healthy?

From the moment they get up to when they go to sleep, children are surrounded by people, including family members, teachers, pastors, and neighbors, who impact their lives. If a child grows up with a circle of caring adults who model social and emotional learning (SEL), they will learn to mirror the behavior of these people. This circle of caring adults protects the child and prevents them from struggling with mental health issues alone. It creates a safe space. By interacting with the child in a caring way that is attuned to their needs, the child can develop self-help tools and resiliency.

Are we giving students tools to help and protect themselves when they feel mentally unwell?

One of the main things we need to do is observe and listen to children to understand what interests and motivates them. This is especially true when many educators have limited in-person time with their students. They must make the most of that time and introduce children to various ways of expressing themselves through their interests and passions. This could be participating in sports, creating artwork, singing with a group, or simply running outside with a friend. If we give young people permission to explore their interests and passions, we build their confidence, resiliency, and positive outlooks.

The most important thing adults can do is to help form caring relationships for their children or students, and let children model those behaviors with friends and others in their lives. Children need to be seen and heard, which creates a mentally safe space for all.

Click here to access an SEL toolkit for supporting mental health, including tips on helping students process feelings through Covid-19 (pp.36-38).