Today, K-12 students are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression, and trauma than previous generations. Social media, the pandemic, pressure to succeed, and an often scary world is influencing student mental health across the country.
According to the Association for Children's Mental Health, 1 in 5 children has a diagnosable emotional, behavioral, or mental health disorder. 1 in 10 teenagers has a mental health issue that impairs their daily function.
Mental health issues in a child can be challenging for parents, teachers, coaches, and other trusted adults to identify. Changes in behavior are expected in growing children, making it difficult to know when behaviors are cause for concern.
Common signs of mental health issues in children
- Mood changes including feelings of sadness, withdrawal, or mood swings
- Intense emotions including fear, extreme anxiety or worry, or angry outbursts
- Extreme behavior like frequent fighting or excessive classroom disruption
- Difficulty concentrating during school, restlessness, and inattention
- Self-injury or self-harm
- A sudden decrease in academic performance
- Losing interest in school or activities they once enjoyed
- Unexplained weight loss, changes in appetite, or compulsive behavior around food
- Physical symptoms like frequent headaches, stomach ache, tense muscles, racing
heart, fast breathing, or changes in sleep patterns
- Substance abuse
Sometimes these signs are not clear. Children and teens may even try to hide symptoms due to feelings of shame or fear of stigma.
Common mental health challenges K-12 students experience
According to the CDC, 9.4% of children aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety. The number is likely higher, as many children do not receive the mental health support they need.
Common types of anxiety in K-12 children:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder: excessive unwanted and stressful thoughts
- Phobias: irrational fear of specific things like storms or certain animals
- Generalized anxiety: worry about everyday things
- Separation anxiety: worry about being separated from parents or other caregivers
- Social anxiety: excessive social consciousness, making class participation and socialization challenging
Anxiety can make it difficult for children and teens to function in school and other extracurricular activities and social interactions. It can affect how they behave at home with their family. When untreated, anxiety can negatively affect students, including resulting in decreased academic performance, absenteeism, and physical illness. Chronic anxiety can lead to depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
It's important to understand that for K-12 students, anxiety can manifest as physical problems. Students with anxiety may get frequent headaches or stomach aches and may be "frequent flyers" at the nurse's office. They may have trouble breathing or a racing heart when they are feeling anxious.
Hazel's physical health providers are trained to consider the "whole child" and identify when a physical health complaint covers a mental health challenge.
Depression often goes unrecognized in students, often dismissed as moodiness. While it is common for students to feel sad, moody, or angry occasionally, they should not have to endure months or weeks of these feelings.
Today, 60% of youth with depression do not receive mental health treatment. Of those who do receive some treatment, only 27% receive consistent care.
Students with depression may seem sad or irritable often, seem tired and lack energy, put little effort into school, avoid class, not enjoy activities they typically do, and withdraw from friends and activities. In dire cases, depression can escalate into self-harm and suicidal ideation.
More than two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by the time they are 16 years old. Traumatic events include psychological, physical, or sexual abuse or assault, community or school violence, domestic violence, natural disasters, terrorism, sudden or violent loss of a loved one, military-related stressors like deployment, serious accidents, or life-threatening illness.
Traumatic events can have a short-term and long-term impact on student mental health. Signs are different for every child, and young students may respond differently than older ones.
Students who have experienced trauma may experience learning problems and physical health problems and are more likely to suffer from behavioral and substance use disorders.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is one of the most common mental health challenges among children. Students with ADHD may struggle to pay attention and control impulsive behaviors. They also may be overly active, prone to daydreaming, and take unnecessary risks. There are three types of ADHD in children:
- Predominantly Inattentive: challenging for the child to organize or finish a task, pay attention to detail, or follow instructions. The child is easily distracted and forgets details.
- Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive: the child fidgets and talks a lot, and it is hard for them to sit still. The child often feels restless, struggles with impulse control, and may speak at inappropriate times.
- Combined: the child experiences symptoms of both hyperactive and hyper-active impulsiveness.
Eating disorders can affect children of all ages. They are usually brought on by stress or trauma and developed as a coping mechanism. Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating are often dangerous and can quickly escalate into depression and suicidal ideation.
The need for school mental health services is more urgent than ever
Today, student mental health is a top concern for school districts. As the setting where K-12-aged children and teens spend most of their time, schools have the opportunity to play a unique role in supporting student mental health. Schools can serve as a location for early intervention and counseling for students struggling with their mental health.
Teachers and other school staff who frequently interact with students are in a position to notice when a student might need support. Students can avoid negative implications if they are able to access services to support their mental health.