Mental Health Support in Schools: How One Social Worker Is Taking It On

“I grew tired of watching students struggle and the standard reactive approach.”

Most people associate stress and mental illnesses with adults, but trauma and stressors can occur at any age. In fact, disorders like anxiety and depression can appear even in young children. This may affect their developmental milestones or interfere with their education. (Learn more about symptoms of anxiety in children here.)

“The top two barriers to academic performance are anxiety and depression,” says Christina Broderick, LSW, psychotherapist and founder of IngitEDU. “The education system places heavy emphasis and pressure on academic performance, yet we don’t equip students with the mental health knowledge and support to allow them to perform to the best of their abilities.”

The result? Students may turn to unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance use or other risky behavior. Plus, their stress may gradually develop into a full-blown disorder. Like grime building up in your shower, a mental disorder becomes harder to deal with the longer you ignore it. Furthermore, having a mental illness increases the risk of suicide—the second leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 34, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Proactive vs. Reactive Approaches to Mental Health

In many cases, it’s only when symptoms of a disorder appear that people start to take their mental health seriously. Broderick believes this may stem from a misconception that if you’re talking about mental health, you’re automatically referring to mental illnesses.

While treatment for mental illness is important and valuable, Broderick calls this a reactive approach. “I recognized a persistent gap that exists as it relates to a lack of mental health knowledge, skills, and resources,” she says. “We needed to change the narrative about what it means for every student to take care of their mental health from a proactive lens.”

 

Photo courtesy of Christina Broderick

 

Teaching proactive approaches to health is not new. Schools already promote healthy lifestyles in order to help prevent chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. For example, students learn nutrition basics in health class and from posters around the cafeteria. They learn the importance of physical activity in gym class and in after-school sports. When it comes to health, prevention is for everyone—not just those who are already sick.

Broderick wants to apply this proactive approach for students’ mental health. Using her background as a certified school social worker, Broderick founded IgnitEDU. This helps provide schools with resources and training to empower teachers and students with mental health knowledge and skills.

“We believe every student should learn, build, and strengthen their mental health foundation along their educational journey,” says Broderick. “We are igniting education by incorporating mental health [to] turn students from statistics to success stories.”

The Tools for Mental Health Success

A typical health class in U.S. schools might include a chapter on mental illnesses. Students may learn outdated definitions of depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide from textbooks that were printed in the ’90s. If they’re lucky, their teachers may share what to do if they’re worried about a friend. That’s pretty much where it stops.

Broderick wanted to go beyond facts and symptoms. She wants students, teachers, and even parents to learn strategies to nurture mental health daily, not just when symptoms of a disorder appear. For IgnitEDU, she uses a “3C Approach,” which she defines as content, connection, and creation. The content is resources to improve mental health knowledge. Connection refers to interactive workshops and courses. The creation entails a wide variety of tools, including workbooks, consultations, and personalized plans for families and organizations.

One of the programs Broderick is most proud of is the 10-month IgnitEDU Community Program. “This allows us to work with students, staff, and families. Often, these groups work in silos, rather than together.” The program helps them work together, get on the same page, and increase conversations about mental health.

 

Photo courtesy of Christina Broderick

The Future of Mental Health in Schools

Youth suicide rates are increasing, and students are dealing with unprecedented stressors. To deal with this, many schools have already started amping up their mental health support. For example, Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore made headlines in 2016 when it replaced its detention with a meditation program. The story went viral, inspiring everyone to question how they think about student misbehavior.

Broderick wants to push this thinking even further. Many mental health programs in schools—including the meditation program at Coleman—target specific students. They may primarily help students who are already dealing with mental illness, or they may target “at-risk” students who are frequently in detention. These are still reactive approaches.

“My dream is that mental health for all becomes a primary focus in schools,” she says. “I want every student to feel confident in knowing that they have the strategies [to] take care of themselves, and if not, they feel comfortable in reaching out for extra support that they may need.”