Concerned about a student’s wellbeing? Start here.
This section gives you a general overview of some of the more common mental health issues that arise during adolescence, and some of the unhealthy behaviors and habits students often adopt in an attempt to avoid or cope with life’s challenges.
What to look for
Adolescence can be a complex and confusing lifestage. Students experience ever-increasing demands and expectations – some that they place on themselves, and some that they receive from parents – not to mention the hormonal changes, peer pressure, and anticipation about what comes after graduation…is it any surprise that young people often seem overwhelmed, anxious, sad, fearful or panicky?
As we reinforce throughout this website, your central role is to teach, not to diagnose or treat mental illnesses. Yet mental health challenges can interfere with the learning process for the student in distress and potentially impact the entire class, so ultimately it is in your best interest to have an understanding of how to address these issues within your classroom.
As a teacher, you expect to witness a wide range of emotions and behaviors in your class. The trick is to figure out when those cues fall outside the “normal” range (although that is a word we do not use casually). Significant changes in appearance, behavior or academic performance may indicate that a student is struggling and could benefit from additional help – especially when those changes interfere with personal, social or academic functioning.
Listed below are a few of the most common cues or “red flags” that a student may be experiencing mental distress that exceeds the “normal” range.
Academic "Red Flags"
- Dropping grades
- Missed or incomplete assignments, or an inability or unwillingness to participate in class
- Writing about violence, death, suicide or other disturbing subject matter
Behavioral "Red Flags"
- Withdrawing or isolating
- A pattern of unexplained tardiness or absences
- Behaviors that disrupt the class
- Destructive or risky behaviors
- A change in activities or routine, including dropping out of activities that he/she used to enjoy (music, sports, clubs), abandoning established relationships to hang out with a different crowd
- Avoidance of situations that might be stressful or trigger anxiety such as participating in group assignments and/or presentations
- Seeking excessive reassurance
- Time management problems such as difficulty completing tasks on time due to worries about completing them “perfectly”
Physical "Red Flags"
- Unexplained aches, pains, cuts, bruises, scars or burns
- Noticeable weight loss or gain
- Falling asleep in class
- A marked disregard for physical appearance, grooming or hygiene
- Verbalizing negative thoughts, indifference or hopelessness
- Obvious signs of alcohol or drug use (breath odor, dilated pupils, etc.)
How common are mental health issues? You might be surprised:
- More than 40% of adolescents in the U.S. age 13 – 18 have experienced a mental health issue at some point in their young lives.
- Over 20% of young people 13 – 18 have experienced a seriously debilitating mental health disorder.
- Approximately 25% of young people have experienced some type of anxiety disorder, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder (SAD) or panic attacks.
These serious conditions trigger serious consequences, straining relationships, upsetting family dynamics, stunting social development and undermining academic performance.
Left unaddressed, young people will often pursue problematic or even dangerous strategies in an attempt to cope with, manage or avoid their symptoms:
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Self-harm such as cutting or hair pulling
- Participating in or becoming the target of bullying
- Excessive or compulsive reliance on sleeping, eating or “screen time” (television, gaming, social media, etc.).
More than a bad day or a bad mood
Keep in mind that although we all may struggle with difficult thoughts or emotions from time to time, these are usually normal feelings that we experience in reaction to particular events. However depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are more than just passing cases of “the blues” or “nerves” - they are real, enduring illnesses of the brain, impacting thoughts, emotions, behaviors and overall physical health. In a nutshell: Sadness is an emotion – Depression is an illness.
Despite the challenges they present, there is good news: when identified and addressed early, these conditions can be well managed. People of all ages can find relief from their symptoms and live happier, more productive lives.