May 18, 2022

Tips for Destigmatizing Mental Health in Schools

Michael E. Creekmore, Jr. LPC, CPCS
Photo of Michael Creekmore and title "Destigmatizing Mental Health"

It was my sophomore year in high school. I remember playing varsity basketball with a couple of teammates I’d known since 7th grade. One of them used to get into fights, skipped class, and smoked in the bathroom. There were rumors about his girlfriend engaging in acts of self harm.

I can remember everyone’s response to them — teachers and students alike. Everyone just thought they were “bad” and needed “better discipline at home.” I don’t remember anyone trying to understand why my teammate used to get into fights, or why his girlfriend was allegedly hurting herself, skipping class, and now fighting, too. Of course I’ll never know what resources were provided to those students, but I know times were much different then than they are now.

During that time, referring to someone’s “mental health” was akin to calling someone “crazy.” It meant something was “wrong with you.” And although discussions about mental health have recently taken center stage in society, there is still a stigma associated with it, so many suffer in silence and don’t pursue resources that could be beneficial.

Students today have access to far more resources than my classmates had in the 90’s, but today’s students also have far more external influences to overcome — including endless news cycles, social media, and a reality-television approach to living life. Society has graduated to having the general conversation about mental health, but the smaller, often more meaningful conversations about mental health seems to be less frequent. When they do occur, they often have a tinge of shame attached.

Mental health concerns have been on the rise for the past five years, but have increased greatly in the last two years. This means the number of educators and students experiencing mental health issues is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, research has shown more than half of those diagnosed with a mental illness/disorder go untreated — meaning many are suffering in silence to avoid being labeled.

What can you do to destigmatize mental health in schools?

Self reflect to process your own feelings regarding mental health.

Whether we admit it or not, we all have our own feelings and/or experiences with mental health related issues. Our beliefs and feelings often shape our perspectives regarding the topic of mental health. Ask yourself:

  • What do you believe and how do you feel about mental health? 
  • Do you think such conversations should be held privately? 
  • Do you believe counseling is for people in crisis only?

By examining our own beliefs, we’re able to wholeheartedly engage in the work of destigmatizing mental health.

Normalize conversations about feelings and mental health.

Create an environment that encourages students to identify and share their feelings. As an educator, take time to familiarize yourself with the climate of your classroom. Be aware of social issues that impact your students and encourage expression of feelings.

Pear deck draw slide with "How are you feeling" question

This Pear Deck template pack designed for school counselors can be used by any educator to help open a dialogue.

Partner with local mental health agencies.

Regardless of location or school district size, mental health providers are only a phone call away. Your professional school counselor can be a wealth of knowledge and information regarding resources and strategies to use when discussing related issues with your students during the school year.

Watch your language.

Educating students on language is important. Words carry meaning and often serve as a primary method of stigmatizing mental health — for example, saying things like, “You can’t really listen to what that person is saying, you know he’s a little crazy,” or, “She is nice one day and so nasty the next…she’s so bipolar!” 

When we use certain terms or phrases loosely, we create a narrative that views the worst symptoms and beliefs about mental health as factual information. Try being more accurate and descriptive by saying something like, “They lie a lot, so you really have to double check what they are saying,” or, “You never know how she will act towards you, she can be unpredictable.”

Putting in the work

Destigmatizing mental health is a daunting task and it won’t happen overnight. However, our approach, conversation, and actions in dealing with mental health related issues can lay the groundwork for changing the narrative in our schools. It starts with you!