The role of teachers in student mental health

Most of these illnesses are not addressed during childhood or adolescence

In Summary

• Teachers do play a custodian role as 'parents or guardians away from home'

A file picture of a teacher engaging learners in class at Bodhei-Junction Primary School in Lamu East
A file picture of a teacher engaging learners in class at Bodhei-Junction Primary School in Lamu East

Teachers play an important role in the mental well-being of students. A qualitative study titled “Mental Health in Kenyan Schools: Teachers’ Perspectives” (Mbwayo, A. W. et al, 2019) states that 9.5 per cent of children and adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa are reported to have a psychiatric disorder. The study further indicates that the prevalence of different mental health problems of children and adolescents in Kenyan schools vary between 10 per cent and 50.5 per cent.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that half of all mental illnesses begins by age 14, though most cases go undetected and untreated. The major illnesses within this age group include depression, anxiety, conduct disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Since most of these illnesses are not addressed during childhood or adolescence, they cause problems in adulthood, affecting one’s relationships, work and quality of life.

Student life is characterised by active interaction with teachers, who, for the most part, spend time with students both in the classroom and in co-curricular activities. Teachers do play a custodian role for students who look up to them as “parents or guardians away from home”.

While teachers are an important component of student life, they cannot and should not diagnose mental health problems. Instead, their role is to promote positive mental health at school, identify students who may have mental health problems, and connect them with appropriate mental health services.

Creating a positive school environment involves teachers understanding students’ learning strengths as well as identifying any weaknesses they may exhibit. The show of empathy towards students’ challenges provides teachers with an opportunity to support and build students’ well-being as well as resilience.

In addition, teachers’ use of positive, encouraging and motivating words go a long way in building confidence in students. Teachers’ ability to listen without being judgmental will create a safe space for students who may be dealing with overwhelming personal, interpersonal or family issues, such as identity crisis and unhealthy relationships both in school and at home.

Following the considerable amount of time teachers spend with students, they are in a better position to identify and flag concerns around mental health challenges in the school setting.

Teachers have the unique opportunity to observe aspects of student behaviour in the school setting that may not be evident to parents, guardians or the school counsellor. The classroom setting provides a consistent opportunity to observe any behavioural traits or changes that may be pointers towards mental health concerns. Observations may include change in class participation, grooming, interaction with peers and performance.

It is important for teachers to make an objective record of their observations and seek to determine if the behaviours are interfering with a student’s ability to function. Teachers are advised to share these observations with the school psychologist and the student’s parents or guardians. This way, the student can access help as soon as possible in case there is need for psychological or medical intervention.

Having said that, teachers will also need support for their mental well-being so they can provide students with the much-needed help. Schools can support teachers by making their mental health a priority by developing resources, policies and programmes tailored for their well-being.

An ongoing and holistic mental health programme for teachers should embed self-care activities, such as physical activity, outdoor and away from school fun times, and setting boundaries around work. The purpose of these activities is to support teachers to improve and maintain their personal well-being.

Lucy Simiyu is a psychologist with Crawford International School

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