How to improve mental health in schools

Whenever Rachel Murat catches any of her Maine-Endwell High School social studies students unable to keep their eyes open in class, the students usually tell her it’s from a lack of sleep the night before.

Casually, Murat asks how many TikTok videos that the students watched the prior night before going to bed. Often, that’s exactly what kept the students up so late. It’s just one of many factors that play into mental health struggles students today are dealing with.

Whether it’s spending too much time looking at phone screens, a lack of sufficient exercise or sleep, an unhealthy diet, bullying on social media or even a troubled at home, students are facing compounded mental health struggles. Their teachers are feeling more strained too by situations and obstacles heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the roots of those problems had likely been building up for years.

Murat, a teacher of more than two decades who was named New York’s Teacher of the Year in 2020, was among six educators and social workers from local school districts and Binghamton University who deconstructed these problems and explored possible solutions Wednesday at a “Mental Health and Schools” panel discussion at the University Downtown Center.

“You can’t have a learning environment when you have kids who are not in a space that’s ready to learn. When somebody is exhibiting atypical behavior, you have to get to that root behavior problem,” Murat said. “In years past, if there was a problem at school, it stayed at school. But that’s not the case anymore.”

This past year has proven to be the most difficult Murat has encountered during her career, she said, as challenges surrounding mental health become more palpable in and out of the classroom. One of the best ways teachers can help, she said, is to be more in tune with the specific mental health needs of each student.

The panel discussion was co-sponsored by the departments of Social Work and Teaching, Learning and Educational Leadership (TLEL) in the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA), as well as the New York State Master Teacher Program.

Panelists focused on the root causes of rising mental health issues in schools, including the challenges that have forced teachers and their colleagues to take better stock of their own well-being, and whether the pandemic had also exposed the impact of other mental health factors that had been easier to overlook before.

Lori Bass-Brown, a social worker at East Middle School in Binghamton, said her school district has support programs in place that can help, but hiring more social workers has also been a necessity. Her caseload recently included some 60 students.

“There’s stress, there’s anxiety, there’s socio-economic issues and there’s trust issues,” Bass-Brown said. “We take care of our physical injuries, but when you can’t see the mental injuries, we don’t always take care of them.”

One of the biggest influences on mental health is social media, even among elementary school students, said Connie Buchinsky, a teacher at Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in Binghamton and a New York Master Teacher who was among the panelists. She said students are dealing with anger and identity issues, some of which can spring from drama on social media when they’re 10 and 11 — when they’re not prepared to handle it.

Murat, who teaches a course on digital citizenship, tries to show students the responsibility that comes with being online and what gets posted in these public forums.

What students see on a person’s social media posts doesn’t always represent a real-life situation and is often a snippet, Buchinsky added, and that can easily lead young people to form negative perceptions about their own lives.

“What we do for our own mental health, we need to pass on to our students and the community,” Buchinsky said. “A solution can’t be accomplished without the students’ families and the school working together.”

Tracy Lyman, a certified elementary and special education teacher and TLEL lecturer whose research interests include social emotional learning, uses toy puppets like “Tucker Turtle” to show children how to take a moment to breathe when situations get difficult.

That also means teachers paying closer attention to their own needs to be in stronger positions to help their students.

“Just talking about feelings and ‘are you OK?” is where we’ve got to go,” Lyman said. “If someone asks me how I am, COVID has taught me I don’t just say ‘OK’ anymore — we all have to recognize that.”

Fortunately, stigmas surrounding mental health are lifting and more productive discussion of how to support students and their teachers has grown partly because of the pandemic’s hard lessons, said Luann Kida, executive director for Binghamton University Community Schools and a former school social worker.

“All of us are under stress, and I won’t say the stigma has gone away, but we’re hearing more about mental health literacy and schools are looking more into social emotional health and how to support students,” Kida said. “It used to be about just referring students to mental health services or a clinic — first of all, there’s not enough initiatives to do that — but there’s a whole world beyond that, so we’re realizing the greater need to have that support. ”

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