How to Deal with Students with Mental Illness


This week before students return, I’ve been spending copious amounts of time in district mandated professional development. One of the seminars was on what to do if there is an active shooter/active killer in the school. It a sad commentary that this is a necessary seminar for those of us in education. The presenter discussed several past episodes of school violence, and talked about lessons learned from them, and how those lessons have shaped changes in policies and procedures.

He touched briefly on the need for collaboration between various team members, especially when dramatic shifts in behavior are noted. Although the term was mentioned casually, what he did not address is mental illness in students. My colleague leaned over to me and said, “What we really need is professional development on how to deal with students with mental illness.”

As suicide rates and incidences of school (and community) mass violence continue to rise, this is an issue that can no longer be ignored. As of the latest available data, the suicide rate in teens is 10%. One in ten teenagers aged 14 to 19 will attempt suicide at some point in their lives (the percentage jumps to 25% in LBGTQ teens).

Personally, I know that over my sixteen year career, I’ve not only seen a startling number of young children diagnosed with some form of mental illness, but the severity and frequency appear to be increasing. From children virtually paralyzed by anxiety to selective mutism to depression to bipolar disorder, we are seeing these kids on a daily basis. We are dealing with the fall out of their disorders (whether being treated or not) through behaviors. As a therapist, I know that behaviors resulting from a mental illness can significantly derail the productivity and therefore progress my student makes.

This is a topic in which there are no easy answers. Then, fold in the dynamic educational aspect with its rapid fire pace and high demands, and it is no wonder we are seeing aggression and behaviors from our students. They are in a world that doesn’t always make sense, with chemical imbalances that impair their ability to respond, and we are expecting so much.

But we have to have expectations. So, how do we handle this? How can we ask our students to do their best without increasing anxiety and depression? How can we improve mental health while getting the most out of our students? If you’d like to know more, John Pagano will be discussing behavior management and strategies for improving mental health at the Sixteenth Annual Therapies in the School conference.

~Kathryn Biel, PT, DPT