Group Of Teenage Students Collaborating On Project In ClassroomThe most common disease affecting students today is not cancer — nor is it diabetes. The most significant disease, mental illness, affects 17.1 million students—more than the number of children and adolescents with cancer, diabetes, and HIV combined.

The first week in October is Mental Health Awareness Week. It brings light onto the fact that psychiatric disorders are having a crippling effect on youth in our schools. As a teacher with regular visibility into student behaviors, you can have a critical impact on early detection and treatment for those students for whom a mental health disorder could be burgeoning—or exacerbating. Before a mental health condition irrevocably impacts your students’ academic performance, social life, or physical wellbeing, learn to identify critical warning signs, and how you can help intervene before it’s too late.

The Need for Mental Health Vigilance in Our Schools

The spectrum of conditions encompassed by the category of mental illness is vast. It includes depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even substance abuse. Complicating matters further; each subset of mental illness is not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, you may have students in your classroom who are battling depression and substance abuse, or anxiety and an eating disorder.

Student with group of classmates in classroom

Consider these staggering statistics from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • 9.4% of children aged 2-17 years have received an ADHD diagnosis.
  • 7.4% of children aged 3-17 years have a diagnosed behavior problem.
  • 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years have diagnosed anxiety.
  • 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years have diagnosed depression.
  • 73.8% of children aged 3-17 years with depression also have anxiety, and 47.2% have behavior problems.
  • For children aged 3-17 years with anxiety, 37.9% also have behavior problems, and 32.3% also have depression.
  • For children aged 3-17 years with behavior problems, 36.6% also have anxiety, and 20.3% also have depression.

If undiagnosed and untreated, such complications can become barriers to student performance, social development, and in the most extreme cases—can lead to self-destructive behaviors. Depression that is untreated, undiagnosed, or ineffectively treated is the number one cause of suicide, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds.

Warning Signs of Mental Health in the Classroom

During the school year, teachers may spend more time with students than students do with their families. This reality means that teachers may be able to identify critical changes in student behavior that could be an indicator of a mental health disorder. What follows are some of the known warning signs for several common mental illnesses that you may be able to identify in your classroom:


  • Responding to objects or situations with crippling fear and dread.
  • Obsessive-compulsive behavior.
  • Avoidance of situations, places, or people due to irrational fear or panic.
  • Unexplainable moments of physical and emotional panic when the student is not in physical danger.
  • Irrational phobia of situations, people, or objects.

Behavioral Disorders

A pattern of disruptive behavior that may include:

  • Inattention during lectures, team work, or individual assignments.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Impulsivity, often displaying itself as sudden interruptions during class.
  • Defiant behavior, particularly toward those in authority.
  • An unwillingness to listen when spoken to directly.
  • An inability to follow through on instructions or finish assignments.
  • Inability to solve problems or organize tasks.
  • Frequently misplacing materials, homework, or toys.
  • Fidgeting with hands or feet or an inability to sit still.
  • Struggling to play or only working quietly.
  • Talking excessively.
  • Shouting out answers before questions have been completed.
  • Struggling to wait for his/her turn.

Eating Disorders

  • Sudden and extreme weight loss.
  • Avoidance of eating, or making excuses to avoid food or social events that involve food.
  • Appearing in oversized clothing to mask weight loss.
  • Cutting food into small pieces or moving them around the plate instead of eating.
  • Exercising obsessively, even when injured.
  • Going to the bathroom right after meals.
  • Blotchy or yellow and dry skin covered with fine hair.
  • Confused or slow thinking, along with poor memory or judgment.
  • Extreme sensitivity to cold.

Substance Use Disorders

  • Sudden increase in class absences and decrease in work completion.
  • Frequently getting into trouble, including fighting, and breaking the student code of conduct.
  • Engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors.
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns.
  • An unexplained change in personality or attitude.
  • Sudden mood swings, irritability, or outbursts.
  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity.
  • Lacking motivation.
  • Unexplained anxiety or paranoia.
  • Bloodshot eyes and abnormally sized pupils.
  • Sudden weight loss or gain.
  • Deterioration of physical appearance.
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing.
  • Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination.
  • Unexpected changes in friends, hobbies, and activities.

You are a Student’s Advocate

If you observe any of these behaviors in a student and suspect that he or she may be suffering from a mental health disorder, follow your school’s protocols for administrative intervention. Talk with your school psychologist, guidance counselors, and parents/guardians to discuss the best course of action. You may be the difference between saving or losing a life.

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