From your daily vantage point as a teacher in the classroom, you often notice shifts in your students’ emotions and behaviors that could be signs of a mental health concern. Perhaps you have received information from a parent or school administrator about a particularly stressful life event that the student is experiencing. There are times when you may even witness a student react in a big, scary, angry way toward another student or even an adult on campus. You may also encounter a situation where you suspect a student may have engaged in self-harming behaviors.
In all of these scenarios, students would likely benefit from additional assessment, support, and services geared toward their unique needs. But, in some cases, more immediate attention may be needed if there is a severe mental health crisis. But what exactly is a “mental health crisis”?
What Is a Mental Health Crisis … and Signs to Look Out For
The term “mental health crisis” indicates a concern about the person’s safety in regard to their own well-being and/or that of others. With students, it speaks to a very significant emotional and/or behavioral disturbance that is also posing a serious and immediate risk of harm toward self and/or others. In these cases, there is reason to believe that the student will likely cause substantial harm unless action is taken. In these types of situations, an individual needs immediate intervention.
Often, scenarios such as acute, elevated risk of suicide or risk of violence account for mental health crises. However, episodes of mania or psychosis could also be a crisis situation (due to a severe mental health illness, intoxication, or adverse effects of medications). When an individual experiences hallucination, delusions, and/or paranoia, these have the potential to decrease a person’s rational sense of control and therefore elevate the risk of harm toward self or other.
As an educator, you are not expected to be able to distinguish these symptoms or severity. However, it is helpful that you can recognize potential signs of a crisis so that you can help connect the student to a trained crisis worker for evaluation and appropriate next steps. Potential signs of a mental health crisis include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Writings, drawings, statements, or other insinuations that the student is thinking about killing themselves
- Aggressive and impulsive behaviors
- Dramatic changes in eating and sleeping patterns (i.e., a student who is reporting not sleeping at all for several days)
- Big shifts in mood
- Self-harming behaviors, such a student as cutting, burning, or hitting themselves
- Agitated behavior, such as pacing, excessive talking, difficulty being still (and these being significant changes from the student’s typical activity level
- Becoming very socially withdrawn and distant from others
What to Do if You See Mental Health Crisis Warning Signs
When you observe the above warning signs or you have other concerns of a bigger problem occurring, please connect with the appropriate support people within your school system to ensure that the student is properly evaluated. This may include a school social worker or psychologist, the guidance counselor, an administrator, or school nurse. Additional resources include the National Suicide Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and your local mobile crisis response unit (find your local center by clicking here). In the event of an emergency, always call 911 and provide them with information about the mental health crisis.
If the student is determined by a professional to be experiencing a mental health crisis, there is a very real possibility that the child will be hospitalized and receive inpatient treatment. In that case, here is a helpful article on how you can support the student once they return to the classroom.
Sometimes, a student may have a very real mental health concern and even illness but may not be in crisis or require intensive, emergency care. While engaging in aggressive behaviors like fighting; self-harming behaviors, such as cutting; or learning that a 12-year-old has wished to die are all very concerning, it is possible for these thoughts and behaviors to be managed in an outpatient setting. If you have a student with a history of mental health struggles, meet with their parents/caregivers to discuss care, including:
- Ask about the student’s crisis warning signs.
- Inquire about the tools and skills the student has learned to help decrease distress.
- Consider if coordinating with the child’s therapist (parental consent required) could be helpful in supporting their mental health in the classroom.
As an educator, you have the unique ability to sometimes spot warning signs that other adults are not able to see. When you witness concerns, especially big shifts in behaviors and emotions that signal the possibility of life-threatening harm to self or others, you have the opportunity to be an advocate for that student and help connect them with the professionals who can evaluate them for a crisis and ensure they receive proper care.
Lastly, know that it is impossible to predict the future or catch all of the warning signs. Sometimes we are not able to identify a person in crisis even when they are right in front of us. Taking the time to better familiarize yourself with the topic of student mental health is a sign of your care and compassion for students and desire to support their well-being in addition to their academics.