One in six students in the U.S. experience a mental health disorder each year, and half of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14. Adolescence can have a particularly strong impact on mental health, as students in this age group are in a formative phase, experiencing physical changes that strongly affect emotions. Adolescents are also more likely to take risks, which opens them up to the dangers of substance abuse, disordered eating, intentional self-harm and participating in unsafe situations––all of which have an influence on mental wellbeing.
While there are many ways to help students experiencing mental health concerns, promoting mental health awareness is one of the best ways you can support students’ mental wellbeing. When students have an understanding of the different aspects of mental health––both in themselves and those around them––they are better equipped to face life’s everyday challenges. Through mental health awareness, students also acquire the tools and language necessary to communicate mental health concerns with peers, trusted adults, or mental health professionals.
Here are three ways to promote mental health awareness in early adolescence:
1. Reinforce SEL skills
One of the best ways to empower students to be aware of their own mental health is by equipping them with strong Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills. By early adolescence, most students have developed foundational SEL skills through socialization and SEL curriculum, but it’s important to reinforce and redirect these SEL skills to enable students to recognize and react to their own mental health concerns. Strong SEL skills also enable students to create perspective and practice empathy, which helps form stronger relationships and better communication.
2. Take steps to reduce mental illness stigma at your school
Many students reject or diminish their mental health concerns because of the stigma associated with experiencing mental illness. Students are surrounded by a society that praises strength, momentum and wittiness, which leads to the creation of a mindset that anything less is failure or invalid. And because many schools don’t prioritize addressing mental health issues on a daily basis, school culture also often perpetuates the stigma of mental illness.
Help students feel confident in owning their mental health struggles by encouraging communication about mental health and introducing coping methods such as mindfulness and therapy. Reducing mental health stigma enables students to openly experience and communicate their mental health concerns, leading to a greater awareness of their overall mental wellbeing.
3. Create programs and safe spaces to support students with mental health concerns
Students often struggle with understanding their feelings and knowing how to react to them in healthy ways. You can help combat this by creating spaces and programs that allow students to explore their emotions and experiences with trusted peers and adults. For example, starting an LGBTQ+ support group or club at your school allows LGBTQ and Questioning students to share concerns, ask questions and communicate their emotions in a safe space. You can also create safe spaces through support programs that connect students with mental health professionals and services. Having access to support and services helps students learn about their mental health on a deeper level and increases mental health awareness.
By learning to identify and react to their emotions in a productive and healthy way, adolescents become more aware of their own mental wellbeing and learn about supporting the mental health of those around them. These three ideas can help educators and administrators guide students and promote deeper mental health awareness throughout adolescence.