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With 49% of all K-12 students experiencing some level of a mental health condition during their time in school, it’s important to be able to identify students with emerging needs in order to provide them with the appropriate support. Left untreated, these mental health issues can threaten students’ safety, academic progress, and behavioral development, and contribute to problems such as self-harm, substance use, grade-level retention, and even school dropouts.

Fortunately, there are some noticeable symptoms that may signal an emerging mental health condition, allowing parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators to intervene and adequately support struggling students. While these symptoms are not a definitive marker of an emerging mental health condition and do not act as a diagnosis, assessing students’ mental health needs can help point them in the right direction to receive the resources, treatment, and professional support they may need.

Here are some common symptoms to watch for in order to identify students in need of mental health support: 

  • Decreased energy or fatigue – Feeling less energetic than usual or excessively tired can be a sign of several common mental health conditions, including depression, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fatigue can affect students’ ability to focus during class, complete schoolwork, socialize with their peers, and develop healthy social and emotional coping mechanisms. 
  • Irritability – Irritability is not always a sign of a mental health condition, and sometimes is a result of academic struggles, a bad situation at home, bullying, or cyberbullying. However, these concerns often lead to mental health issues, and persistent irritability can signal emerging anxiety or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). 
  • Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors – When a student is excessively focused on certain thoughts or concerns and reacts to this anxiety by compulsively completing certain tasks––often repeatedly––there is a high likelihood that student is experiencing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Some common obsessive thoughts include fear of danger, concern about germs, or an excessive need for order, and common compulsions include completing a task or saying a word a certain number of times, excessive hand washing or sanitizing, and fixation on arranging objects in a particular order.
  • Difficulty concentrating – Difficulty concentrating is a symptom of many common mental health disorders and is typically accompanied by other symptoms that help better identify what mental health concerns a student may be facing. For instance, a student who has difficulty concentrating but also feels persistent sadness, fatigue, and loss of interest in activities or hobbies may be experiencing symptoms of depression. Another student who also has difficulty concentrating may conversely be excessively energetic, forgetful, and distracting to peers during class––this student could be experiencing Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).
  • Excessive energy or fidgeting during class time – A student who struggles to sit still, focus and peacefully complete their schoolwork during class time may be experiencing ADHD. These students also are often a distraction to other students, starting conversations and acting impulsively throughout the day.
  • Defiant behavior or outbursts – Angsty teens are one thing, but excessive outbursts of anger, hostility toward authority, and defiant behavior are not within the limits of normal child or adolescent behavior. These symptoms often signal the emergence of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), which may affect up to 10% of students.

By keeping an eye out for these common symptoms of mental health conditions, parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators can recognize when to provide additional mental health support to children and adolescents. Awareness of the mental health challenges that students are experiencing can ensure they receive appropriate treatment and support and avoid concerns like self-harm or harm to others, substance use, academic struggles, or dropping out of school.