Stress leads to decreased productivity for teachers and students, as it depletes them of mental energy and resources to stay motivated and engaged in the classroom. Stress also leads to burnout, commonly defined as exhaustion of physical or emotional resources, and therefore a decrease in motivation and mental wellbeing.
44% of K-12 teachers in the US say the almost always feel burnt out at work. It is clear that teaching is overwhelming and more must be done to mitigate this. The same is true of students, with a 47% increase in suicidality from 2008 to 2017, only worsening since then due to COVID. Stress, burnout, and poor mental health are plaguing our schools - we must stop this now.
The youth mental health crisis has only worsened since the start of COVID. 9 out of 10 American students were affected by school closures, and the majority of students claimed that their stress and mental health issues worsened since the onset of the pandemic. With school closures, students could no longer access the people and activities that helped them relieve stress, so it's no surprise that their stress and mental health issues skyrocketed during the pandemic. Beyond mental health issues, lockdown measures from the pandemic took a toll on students' physical health as they had less opportunities to stay active with friends through team sports or gym classes. Exacerbated stress also increases cortisol levels in the brain, deteriorating healthy brain tissue that is vital for learning and happiness.
7 out of 10 teens in the US identify anxiety and depression as major issues in their peer groups. Middle and high school students are vulnerable to experiencing high rates of stress that lead to poor mental health outcomes. Student stress is significantly higher than adults, pointing us to this specific community when thinking about prevention strategies in schools. Common stressors for middle and high school students are school and coursework, bullying/harassment, and family issues. According to Bryan Nguyen’s student story, prioritizing his mental health in high school was challenging for him because of his heavy load of responsibilities. Having to think about so many factors like assignment due dates, exams, working, making time for friends, etc. caused his stress to build to a point of overwhelm.
Disparities in Stress
Middle and high school are often hard for students to adapt to as there are significant increases in workload. However, girls report having higher stress levels in this age range compared to boys. Girls in this age group report significantly higher levels of stress related to school and social issues. Previous research shows this might be the case because girls experience more pressure at this age to perform in school and in their social lives. It is important to recognize the factors that might be contributing to this disparity amongst genders to start to mitigate the sources of these stressors for girls.
Other groups of students are more vulnerable to stressors such as LGBTQ+ students. The state of LGBTQ+ mental health is concerning, with over 45% of identifying students seriously considering suicide in the last year. Over 80% of LGBTQ+ youth want access to mental health care, however, 60% could not access mental health care due to stigma and affordability. Schools can help mitigate the increased stress and anxiety in the LGBTQ+ community by using inclusive language and curriculum, for example. This might look like using gender-neutral terms like the word “partner” to describe relationships, and including pronouns in curriculum and amongst the student body. Creating inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ students like a Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club at the school, connecting students to each other for support and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights can also help.
How Schools Can Help
Schools are in a unique position to promote preventative mental health resources, by connecting students to positive mental health practices and resources. Preventative mental health is important in schools, as 87% of students are likely to use mental health resources recommended by their schools. Implementing breathwork into schools is a powerful tool to disrupt stress cycles, as it promotes relaxation in the body. It is accessible, costless and can be done by both students and teachers in class. Studies show that breathwork leads to decreased stress and anxiety, suggesting that adding breathwork practices into K-12 curriculum might improve student and teacher mental health.
Another prevention strategy to reduce stigma and help students cope with stressors is opening up the conversation around mental health with peers and trusted adults. Creating an environment where students feel that they can talk about their stress is important to help them seek the help that they need. To supplement the direct school environment, connecting students to a digital environment is important because it helps them reach mental health care anywhere and anytime even after school hours. Teens prefer the privacy of digital mental health resources, as we can see in the higher rate of engagement with digital mental health services and platforms compared to traditional services. Providing students with effective mental health resources starts with school staff. In an NCES press release, 88% of public school staff felt that they did not have enough licensed mental health professionals or funding to adequately address the youth mental health crisis. With a widespread shortage of mental health specialists, providing access to digital mental health resources is a way to help students get the help that they need when they need it. Students are used to using digital technologies, so meeting students where they are starts with digital resources that are on-demand, private, and personalized.
How Neolth Helps
If you are a K-12 administrator or counselor looking for digital solutions to student and teacher stress, Neolth is a digital stress and mental health support program for students and educators. We’re on a mission to help you stress less, build resilience, and become a part of our compassionate community. Our app helps you when you’re feeling overwhelmed with self-guided content, personalized for your mental health journey. Neolth has a growing community of Student Ambassadors from 170 schools and works with schools to improve access to mental health support for their students and teachers alike.