Teachers Are on the Frontline of the Teen Mental Health Crisis, But They Need a Lot More Support

Experts are calling on training for teachers to get teens the help they need, but should this be their responsibility? HLN's Lynn Smith explores this issue.

An image of a teacher with teenage students.
Photo: Getty Images.

Slowly but surely, children are making their ways back into the classroom, so why are alarm bells ringing? Isn't this the moment we've all been waiting for? Advocates warn this may actually add to the strain many teens have already been experiencing in the pandemic.

After a year of distanced learning and isolation from friends, teens may experience some overwhelming emotions and difficulty adapting back to the way things used to be.

Regine Muradian, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist told me on CNN Headline News that this is the reason we need to arm teachers with the knowledge and skills to handle what's coming or what's already an issue for them. "Fatigue has built up," says Dr. Muradian. "From getting up in the morning, having the structure, getting back inside the classroom, really focusing, paying attention, having kids around you, all this can create a lot of impact on your mental health."

According to a new survey by C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, teenagers are feeling frustrated, anxious, and disconnected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same study found nearly half of parents say their teen has shown a new or worsening mental health condition since the beginning of the pandemic. And according to an examination of medical claims by the health care non-profit Fair Health, the number of claims related to self-harm for teens aged 13 to 18 nearly doubled compared to 2019. For overdoses, claim lines shot up nearly 120 percent and a nearly 94 percent increase for generalized anxiety disorders.

Elise Troker is a teen on the frontlines of this crisis as a peer counselor for Teen Line, a non-profit community based organization which provides peer-based support using a national hotline. She says there's been more calls for various different issues. "Recently there's been a large increase in calls about loneliness or connectivity," says Troker. "There's been an increase in calls of people who are having struggles at school or struggles with motivation...we've had an increase of more serious calls and more serious topics." Those include suicidal ideation, child abuse, and self-harm.

Dr. Muradian says there are essential conversations you need to be having with your teens at home to help, including discussing what things were like pre-pandemic and what things look like now. Talking is only one part of the puzzle. "Practicing something I love is active listening, and that's really stepping back and validating how they feel and validating their frustrations and where they're coming from," says Dr. Muradian.

But parents are just the beginning. New focus has been put on the importance of training teachers to handle these types of mental health issues. But the question then becomes: is that something teachers should or could handle? We know how overworked and underpaid our educators are and training programs already take up so much of their time. Can they handle another responsibility inside the classroom? "This is hard on teachers," says Dr. Muradian. "They have a lot on their plate." But she says mental health should be a priority. "Mental health is going to have to be number one in terms of their training," adds Dr. Muradian.

Prioritizing this type of training is the mission of Team Project Rise. The group, led by Dr. Muradian, is petitioning Congress to provide mandatory training for all public school teachers for the over 50 million children attending public school across the country. They say teachers need the tools necessary to help them identify early warning signs of mental health issues and appropriately interact with students affected. "Our teachers are our first responders; it is up to us to give them all the tools necessary to protect what our nation holds dearest," says Team Project Rise.

For teens like Troker, who has been experiencing her own struggles during COVID, we also must recognize there is not a one-size fits all problem or solution to this mental health crisis. "It's super fluid, and it fluctuates from time to time," says Troker. "In the beginning of the quarantine and the pandemic, maybe you felt in control and you felt like you could do things. But then, as time progressed, things got harder to deal with. And then, for some other people, that might have been [feeling scared in the beginning and] not knowing what was going to happen and then later on, feeling like they have a little bit more control of it. Everyone is living a little bit differently."

While emotions may differ, the need for help remains the same. As families, we can't sit by and accept the continuing and devastating impact this pandemic has had on our children and we must come together, as parents always do, and help fix it.

Lynn Smith is the host of HLN's On The Story, which airs 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET.

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