Helping Students Cope with Mental Health Issues

As she sat in her virtual tenth-grade geometry class, Amanda heard the teacher explain the proof, but the teacher’s voice failed to register with her. Rather, Amanda found herself preoccupied with her own chorus of thoughts: I’m so far behind in school. No one knows. No one cares. I don’t have any friends. I only disappoint my parents. I’m so alone. I don’t want to go on like this. I want the pain to end. Then, she went on to imagine what her funeral might be like.

The pandemic and all its sundry effects continue to impact the population. But the most significant impacts of the pandemic impact those in the population least able to cope with them: students, those with lower incomes, and African Americans. Among students, many struggle with depression and suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide). According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five students age 13-18 deals with a serious mental illness. (Here is a pdf with facts, figures, and resources you can share with your teachers, parents, and staff.)

It is important to note that having thoughts of suicide (or thoughts of one being “better off dead,” known as passive suicidal ideation) are not unusual for students, particularly students age 13-18. One study cites the prevalence of suicidal ideation among students in this demographic is roughly three times that of the overall population.

While thoughts of one’s death or making plans for suicide may not be unusual for teens, they can be dangerous. Such thoughts are important to bring into the light and deal with, without fear of shaming or stigmatization. To a student such as Amanda, living in the isolation of her mind and rehearsing these thoughts over and over again with no outside voices to weigh in can lead to preoccupation with death, and rationalization that taking her life is the only logical course open to her. Helping struggling students come out of the darkness of their self-imposed isolation and talk with someone else is critical to breaking that cycle.

Most schools don’t do a good job of helping students break that cycle. Christian schools, particularly Christian schools serving less affluent populations may not talk about it at all. But though not many Christian schools may talk about mental health struggles openly, the data show that Christians experience mental health struggles just as much as those in the non-believing community. What can you do to recognize signs of mental health struggle among your students?

Any of the following behaviors or behavioral changes might indicate the presence of struggle in a student:

  • Unexplained or frequent absences from class, particularly a pattern of absences
  • Lack of participation in class, or in social activities, or a lack of attentiveness (distraction)
  • A change in physical appearance, particularly a sudden change
  • A lasting change in mood (sad, angry, antagonistic, detached, disinterested)
  • Unusual crying
  • A drop in grades and/or a pattern of turning in assignments late, incomplete, or carelessly-completed
  • Self-deprecating remarks or humor
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Sudden change in eating habits (weight loss or weight gain)
  • Regularly drawing or doodling images that reflect emptiness, isolation, hopelessness, or death
  • A verbal admission of feeling depressed or hopeless

What can Christian educators do to help students who might be struggling with mental health issues?

  • Talk openly about the reality of mental health struggles, and the facts that they’re not unusual, or anything to be ashamed of. Mental health struggles are no different from other physiological illnesses. Would you be ashamed if you had a cold? Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are no different. Conditions can be treated, symptoms can be improved, and people can recover.
  • Acknowledge that Christians struggle with feeling hopeless, depression, and thoughts of self-harm. The Apostle Paul reports being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” in 2 Corinthians 1:8. Many Christians struggle with similar feelings today.
  • Talk about Christians needing the help of one another (and the Lord!) to navigate the troubles of life. We weren’t created to walk the Christian life in isolation. God tells us in his Word that we need one another in the Body of Christ for support, encouragement, prayer, other practical help, and accountability (see Hebrews 3:12-13). The tendency for everyone who struggles with sin or shame to struggle secretly. Encourage them to come into the openness of community, and find God’s grace sufficient for the ways in which they struggle.
  • Personally pursue students. Spend time checking in one-on-one with students, getting to know them and their struggles. Pray for the insight and discernment to know how to help them. Pray that the Holy Spirit would bring any hidden struggles into the light.
  • Privately engage students in whom you notice red flags. Schedule a time to speak with those students offline—ideally, in person. If that’s not an option, engage them over Zoom or Google Classroom…but make time to talk with them. Let your student know that he/she is noticed, loved, and important to you, and to the Lord.
  • When you talk with your student, don’t try to be a counselor. If you’re like most teachers, you don’t have a counseling background. You don’t need to act as though you have one! Talk with your student. Acknowledge the signs you’ve observed in them. Ask them how they’re doing. Listen attentively and actively to what they share. Empathize with them, letting them know they’re not unusual or hopeless. Walk with them to Christ, as the One who perfectly understands them and is with them in the midst of their struggles.
  • If you suspect your student struggles with suicidal ideation, ask your student if they have had thoughts of harming themselves, or of committing suicide. If they respond that they have, ask if they have a plan for how they might carry it out. Then, ask them if they plan to act on those desires. If your student says that he or she is considering acting on their plan, offer to take them to the emergency room right away, or call 911 for them. Stay with them or stay on the call with your student until help arrives. If your student says that he or she is thinking about hurting themselves but won’t act on those thoughts right now, encourage them to speak to a counselor immediately. Notify your supervisor at the school, and contact the student’s parent or guardian immediately to share what you’ve heard. Don’t hold that conversation in confidence. The most important thing right now is to help that student find access to other caring voices who can speak into his or her darkness and provide a different perspective.

     

Here are some additional resources you can turn to for more information on helping students deal with depression or thoughts of self-harm:

Most of all, as a follower of Christ, you have the power to pray for the student in your care. Whether your student is a learner in your class, your child, or a friend, you can intercede before the Throne of God on that student’s behalf. And you can incarnate the love and wisdom of God by being physically and emotionally present with that student as he or she navigates these sometimes dark roads.

Tim Geiger (M.Div.) is Executive Director of Children's Jubilee Fund. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Tim has lived in or around the city most of his life. His undergraduate studies done at the Community College of Philadelphia, Tim went on to earn a Master of Divinity Degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Prior to serving at Children's Jubilee Fund, Tim worked for the Internal Revenue Service, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and Harvest USA, where he also served as Executive Director and then President from 2012-2019. Tim lives with his wife and daughter just outside of Philadelphia.

Children's Jubilee Fund is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1997 to provide tuition grants to Christian schools in the Philadelphia metro area that serve underprivileged students. These grants are then awarded by the schools as scholarships to students who meet income and residency guidelines. Each year, Jubilee provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants that, in turn, help hundreds of students in Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, and Camden Counties achieve their God-given academic and personal potential. Children's Jubilee Fund is an entirely donor-supported organization.

Say “No” to Bullying

October is National Bullying Prevention Month.


Jesse paused before walking into the school building. He breathed in deeply and felt a twinge of pain from his ribs, which still ached from the punches he received the day before. Ninth grade wasn’t supposed to be so tough, he thought.

Every day for the last two months, Jesse’s classmates found new ways to torment him. First, it was name-calling and other verbal taunts. Then, it was a series of pranks. For the last week, there had been a series of physical incidents—the worst of which had been yesterday. Things were getting worse for Jesse. He didn’t know how long he could endure it—or how to make it stop. He seriously entertained the thought of simply not going into the school building at all.

Jesse is a victim of bullying. And he isn’t alone. Studies show that one in five American students ages 12-18 experiences bullying[1]. 95% of those students report being bullied at school. And, we should note that bullying is not a problem only in secular schools. Like many other social problems, bullying exists in Christian schools, as well.

And bullying is a problem that has wide-ranging consequences for its victims. Data shows that victims of bullying are known to experience higher incidences of mental health and behavior problems than non-victims. Such outcomes might include depression, anxiety, sleep problems, low self-esteem, and even thoughts of self-harm and suicide. And those outcomes can last beyond adolescence. Into adulthood.

Victims of bullying are also at risk for lower academic achievement, dropping out of school, and social disengagement. The consequences are real. Students who are bullied pay a high price for the selfish and sinful behavior of others. Some of the emotional wounds suffered as the result of bullying last a lifetime.

In elementary and middle schools, I was bullied. I can still clearly recall some of those experiences. My teachers, parents, and school counselor all gave me the same advice: either ignore the bullying, or fight back. The few times I did fight back only succeeded in inflaming the situation, reaffirming my own powerlessness. And for those who have ever been victims of bullying, it is understood that ignoring the problem—either by victims or adults who are aware of the situation—only gives it permission to continue.

While on the surface it might appear that power is at the heart of bullying behavior, the opposite is actually true: fear and insecurity are at its core. Fear and insecurity on the parts of those who become bullies lead them to find security and identity by controlling others. Through humiliating others, they feel strong. Through doing so publicly (which is how bullying most frequently happens), bullies attract other insecure people to themselves. This both affirms the strength of the bully and allows the bully’s followers to live vicariously through his or her displays of power. In reality, though, it’s all an act. Bullies can only mask their own weakness and insecurity through frightening others.

This is why it’s necessary for teachers, parents, youth leaders, and other caring adults to identify when a student they love is being bullied, and to intervene. Only real power can defuse a bully’s bluster and end a cycle that will wind up only hurting innocent victims. How can you tell if a student is being bullied? Here are some things to look for:

  • Students who suddenly seem withdrawn, depressed, or anxious
  • Students who suddenly avoid school, church, or neighborhood venues that might be locations where bullying occurs
  • Students who suddenly stop using social media or their phones altogether
  • Students who have unexplained bodily injuries (bruises, scratches, etc.), torn clothes, or missing property
  • Students whose eating habits suddenly change
  • Students who engage in self-harming behaviors (cutting, eating disorders)


Sometimes, though, there may not be visible signs of bullying. Parents can be proactive in four ways to detect and stop bullying:

  1. Pray for your student, that the Lord would protect him or her from those who would wish to cause harm.
  2. Talk regularly with your student, asking diagnostic questions that might lead to bullying or other hidden problems being exposed. Ask about interactions with friends, about interactions with other peers, about how your student feels about him/herself. Ask him or her what’s currently making them happy and what’s making them sad or fearful.
  3. Watch your student and note how he or she interacts with peers. Can you see any visible or sudden changes? Does she suddenly seem more passive and shut down when with friends? Does he suddenly make excuses not to spend time with others?
  4. Monitor your student’s phone, social media, and app usage. About 37% of all bullying victims have been cyberbullied. Cyberbullying can take several forms: mean and hurtful comments about the victim, rumors about the victim, or threats of violence. Cyberbullying can be either direct (via text or instant messaging) or public (via social media). Cyberbullying is far from harmless, and must be stopped as soon as it is discovered.


What can you do as a parent or other responsible adult if you discover that your student is the victim of bullying?

  1. Pray and ask God for wisdom and discernment to deal with the situation.
  2. Talk with your student and affirm that you will make and keep them safe.
  3. Ask your student to share details with you about the bullying (Who? When? Where? What have they done? How long has it been going on? Who else knows?)
  4. If there has been violence or threats of violence, call the police.
  5. Elevate the situation immediately to other adults who can help shut down the bullying and hold the perpetrators accountable. This may include teachers, school counselors, and administrators if the situation occurs at school; youth leaders or pastors if the situation occurs at church; coaches if it occurs in a sports league. If appropriate, notify the bully’s parents or guardians and hold them responsible to intervene. Adults who know about bullying are responsible to stop the bullying.
  6. Continue talking with your student to determine how they are dealing with the situation and people involved. Determine where they might need additional assistance and interventions.
  7. Leverage the resources you have at your disposal. School counselors can connect your student with other resources, inside and outside of the school. Church leaders, particularly youth leaders, can provide spiritual care, encouragement, and a path toward healing. Counselors, social workers, and other therapists can provide emotional support and identify ways to create a climate of safety in which the student can begin to thrive.


Here are links to some other free resources you might find helpful:


Bullying in our schools and communities is never acceptable, it’s never normal, and it’s never harmless. Bullying winds up hurting us all. Let’s take steps to rein it in, and help students who have become victims to recover and thrive!


                                                    

[1] Cited under “Bullying Statistics” heading of the webpage stopbullying.gov/resources/facts, last accessed 10/20/2020. Data was gleaned from studies by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

Tim Geiger (M.Div.) is Executive Director of Children's Jubilee Fund. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Tim has lived in or around the city most of his life. His undergraduate studies done at the Community College of Philadelphia, Tim went on to earn a Master of Divinity Degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Prior to serving at Children's Jubilee Fund, Tim worked for the Internal Revenue Service, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and Harvest USA, where he also served as Executive Director and then President from 2012-2019. Tim lives with his wife and daughter just outside of Philadelphia.

Children's Jubilee Fund is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1997 to provide tuition grants to Christian schools in the Philadelphia metro area that serve underprivileged students. These grants are then awarded by the schools as scholarships to students who meet income and residency guidelines. Each year, Jubilee provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants that, in turn, help hundreds of students in Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, and Camden Counties achieve their God-given academic and personal potential. Children's Jubilee Fund is an entirely donor-supported organization.