Understanding How to Teach Students with Mental Health Disorders

In quiet New Hampshire, among the beautiful autumn mountain backdrop and the New England seacoast towns, a silent killer known as opioids are making their way from family to family and from community to community, sending shock waves throughout the state and leaving family and friends to question themselves on why they couldn’t (or didn’t) act sooner to saved the lives of their beloved who are succumbing to addiction at an alarming rate. According to a September 2016 report by the New Hampshire Drug Monitoring Initiative, 2013 to 2015 showed a 128.6% increase in the number of drug-related deaths. It is projected that by the end of 2016, there will be close to 500 drug-related deaths, a number that is over four times what it was in 2012. New Hampshire’s story is not unique as drug-related deaths are rising in many parts of our country. Experts attribute much of the drug use, particularly with teens and young adults, to mental health disorders that are going un-diagnosed, untreated, and/or unmediated. Caught in the crossfire of this dilemma are America’s classroom teachers, one of the stable positive influences in the lives of teens and young adults. What strategies can and should teachers employ to best support students with mental health disorders?

In a recent Mind/Shift article, blogger Katrina Schwartz asks the question, why don’t teachers get training on mental health disorders? Schwartz goes on to suggest that today’s teachers must have a firm grasp on all of the academic, social, and emotional needs of their students while managing behavior. She writes, “paying attention to all these elements helps create a well-run, high functioning classroom, but dealing with all of them well — often in overcrowded classrooms — can feel completely overwhelming.”

Many schools lack the professional development and training structures to support teachers in working with an ever-increasing population of students with mental health disorders. According to the statistics posted on the National Institute of Mental Health website, twenty percent children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder. Nearly 50% of children ages 13 to 18 will have some type of mental disorder at some point in their lifetime. Similarly, a survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and found that thirteen percent of children ages 8 to 15 had a diagnosable mental disorder within the previous year. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common disorder in this age bracket, followed by mood disorders and major depressive disorders.

One such classroom strategy that shows promise for students with mental health disorders is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, known simply as PBIS. According to the PBIS website, “Classroom PBIS includes preventative and responsive approaches that may be effectively implemented with all students in a classroom and intensified to support small groups or a few individual students.” The website goes on to suggest that Classroom PBIS strategies “are important tools to decrease disruptions, increase instructional time, and improve student social behavior and academic outcomes , which is critical as schools are held to greater accountability for student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.”

The University of Michigan Depression Center maintains a website with mental health resources for educators. There, educators can learn about ways to help students identify and work through their mental health disorder learning barriers, promote long-term health and wellness, and work with families and other specialists to provide a wrap-around support network for the student. The site highlights educator tools such as the Depression Toolkit and an updated list of other web resources for educators.

In today’s world, whether we like it or not, we ask our teachers to play a role that is much deeper than that of an academic instructor. In many cases, teachers are part academic instructors, part counselors, part parents, and part mentors to teens and young adults. With the rise of the prevalence of mental health disorders among students, teachers need tools to be successful in meeting the needs of all of their students. It is up to schools to help provide these tools on an ongoing basis to their staff.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.


  1. Hello you have a student at SRHS that recently sent a message on Instagram to an activist page called Opalactivists. I quote ´How does it feel to reach the level of autism you have?´. I have no idea what about this positive page bothered Brayden Lachapelle but he has embarrassed your whole school in front of the 20,000 people who follow this account. Maybe you should talk to him about how powerful the internet is. The screenshot is on the Opalactivist´s Instagram account.


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