5 Things Teachers Can Do When a Student Is in a Mental Health Crisis or Challenge

Be prepared so you can respond appropriately.

Concept illustration of student in mental health crisis

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, and May 9 in particular marks Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that one in five youths have a diagnosed mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. And even those who don’t necessarily have a diagnosed mental health disorder may struggle with their mental health at any one point in time. It’s likely that we all have at least one student who struggles with a mental health challenge or crisis while they are in our classroom. 

In a moment of crisis, it can be challenging to remain calm and figure out how to best support students. However, this support can be lifesaving for students. As someone with lived experience both as a student experiencing a mental health crisis and a teacher supporting students experiencing a mental health crisis, here are five tips for how to best assist students in seeking the help they need and deserve.

1. Create the time and space to listen

As teachers, we are busy with so many responsibilities, but taking time to listen to our students can be life-changing. It can be helpful to ask a student if they would like advice/feedback or just for us to listen. We are naturally inclined to want to “help” and “fix” situations. However, sometimes students don’t want to be told “It will get better” or other phrases we think may be supportive.

I know for myself as a student, no amount of “it will get better” or “you have so much potential” made me feel better in my moments of crisis. Sometimes students just want someone to listen and validate their experience. Phrases such as “I hear you are in pain” or “I hear that this situation is upsetting for you” can be helpful in those moments. As we listen, it is also important to be aware of our biases (cultural, religious, racial, implicit/explicit) and how our responses may be perceived by students who have different beliefs and opinions than ourselves. We are all different humans with different experiences, so listening without judgment is key. 

2. Offer choices

Even through mental health challenges and crises, it’s important to provide students with agency as much as possible. It may be necessary for you to call a student’s parents, refer them to a counselor, or call a crisis line. Still, in these moments, you can provide choices. You can give a student a choice to be present or absent when you reach out to their parents/caregivers. You can offer to walk the student to a counselor if they are afraid to go alone (this was immensely helpful for me as a student). Providing choices within the context of crisis communicates to students that they are human, their voices matter, and they are not “bad” or “in trouble” for experiencing a mental health challenge. 

3. Know when to tag out or ask for support


As a teacher, it can be stressful and scary to have a student in your classroom who is experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis, as many of us did not receive preparation and training to handle these situations in teacher prep programs. It is important to remember you are not alone or solely responsible for supporting students experiencing a mental health challenge. Reach out to school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and/or administrators to help you navigate the best course of action and gain support and resources for yourself. Be aware of your own mental health history and what situations may activate/trigger you that may require you to tag out of a situation and have another professional support the student. 

4. Follow up with students

If a student opens up to you about a mental health challenge or experiences a mental health crisis in your presence, follow up with them. It can be uncomfortable to bring up topics of mental health due to stigma. But the more we model speaking openly about our mental health, the more our students learn that there is no shame in experiencing mental health challenges.

If a student is hospitalized or out of school for an extended period of time, check in with the student’s case worker, guidance counselor, or parents/caregivers to see if it is all right to remain in contact with the student via email, mail, or other modes of communication. As a student who was hospitalized, having teachers who maintained contact with me, shared stories of what was happening at school, and followed up with me greatly helped me feel valued as a member of the school and classroom community. 

Check out these 22 empowering mental health activities for teens.

5. Remain flexible on schoolwork/deadlines

In times of crisis or when students are experiencing mental health challenges, schoolwork may be the least of a student’s concern. Students need emotional regulation and mental stability to do their best work. Some students experiencing mental health challenges may have difficulty completing work and meeting deadlines while others may “overachieve” and try to delve into schoolwork in an attempt to avoid addressing other issues. Therefore, it can be incredibly beneficial for students to know that they have flexibility in completing schoolwork and meeting deadlines. I personally benefited from extensions, incompletes, and other accommodations. Some students may benefit from a 504 plan to provide accommodations and modifications necessary to support their mental health. Each student has different needs in times of crisis, so remaining flexible is crucial to supporting student success. 

We must remember that, as teachers, we are mandated reporters. There may be some situations that warrant us to report confidential information that students disclose. You can remind students of this in conversation and be transparent with them, as you don’t want to make promises of confidentiality you can’t keep. If you are unsure if a situation warrants reporting, seek advice from counseling or administration and/or the resources below. 

Mental Health Resources

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