Four Traits of a Self-Care School

The Associated Press recently reviewed, data from more than three dozen public universities and discovered what I’ve suspected for years. The number of students seeking treatment for mental health problems has almost doubled in the past five years, while overall enrollment has stayed about the same.

Did you catch that? The students seeking help has nearly doubled.

Some educators explain the increase by a reduced stigma surrounding mental health issues as well as the rising rates of anxiety and depression among students. This is tough news in itself, but worse when we add it to the fact that “campus counseling centers grapple with low morale and high burnout as staff members face increasingly heavy workloads,” the AP reports . Many campuses have just one counselor for every 4,000 students. Few of the 39 universities studied met the industry-suggested requirement of one counselor for every 1,500 students.

Most of the college presidents said that if money were no object, the first move they’d make to improve services would be to hire more mental-health staff members, according to the American Council on Education.

So, what can we do about this?

Four Ideas to Create Self-Care Campus Cultures

I believe change should begin with K-12 education. Parents and educators can create cultures that foster good mental health, hence sending graduates off to college or a career with a skill set and priorities that ground them as people. In fact, I believe the schools and families that do this actually create natural leaders inside those kids. Think about it. Any kid today who has a handle on anxiety and can remain poised in the midst of stressful situations will naturally be seen as a leader. So, let me offer four suggestions.

1. Self-Care Centers for Help

At Growing Leaders, we know a number of schools that have added what I call “Self-Care Centers” to their campuses. They vary in their offerings, but all of them are locations on campus (a library, media center, counseling office, etc.) that provide students with tools to better govern their workload and mental health. I’ve written before about Principal Gary Davison who utilizes his media center at lunch time for students to come in and catch up on their subjects; take a test; get coaching on a project they’re falling behind in or whatever. He calls it: Lunch and Learn. One faculty from each discipline is present. Students can schedule a time or just drop in. Gary has adjusted the daily calendar to lengthen lunch time for students to get this help or to pet a therapy dog and catch their breath. It’s been a game-changer for Lambert High School students.

2. Schedules with Margin

You’ve probably heard of “Mental Health Fridays” on campuses across the country. These days are set aside to help students focus on their own mental health and to experience some margin in their day. Leslie Smith began R.O.A.M. when she was principal of Orange Lutheran High School, in California. It stands for Revitalize On A Monday. Students enjoy a segment of time on Mondays to re-energize themselves—from playing ping pong to catching up on homework, to talking with friends, to trying a new hobby. She clarified that the purpose was not to be on their smartphones, thus becoming more anxious. It was just the opposite. Leslie told me both faculty and students enjoy greater peace of mind and better relationships thanks to R.O.A.M.

3. Coping Skills Instruction

There are a number of administrators who now equip their staff and faculty to teach coping skills to students as part of health class, humanities, social studies or advisement periods. These skills include pausing and breathing, focusing on something the student is grateful for, avoiding distractions, and observing, which is focusing on what they’re doing in the present moment. Observing is also called mono-tasking (it’s the opposite of multi-tasking). If we don’t teach coping skills, teens often resort to coping mechanisms, which could be unhealthy (vaping, binge-drinking, addictive behaviors). Essentially, teaching these skills empowers kids to be intentional with their thoughts and emotions. If it all sounds absurd to offer these tips to students—just wait. It will be standard practice in 5 to 7 years.

4. Communicating Perspective on Priorities

By this I mean, offering messaging to your staff and faculty—and parents—that reminds the students that life is about more than grades. I know of schools that place appropriate focus on test scores, but consistently remind students to maintain perspective: a bad grade is not the end of the world; the process of knowing how to study and how to take breaks is essential, and making mistakes along the way, is normal. In fact, I love it when I meet parents and educators who consistently remind students that failure is the best teacher and the sooner kids learn to fail the better. I’m convinced this step is important because I meet students all the time who feel pressure to perform perfectly and believe the adults around them won’t be satisfied with anything short of perfection. This is unhealthy leadership.

One senior in high school told me recently that his school practices the entire list above. His conclusion? He told me, “I feel my parents and teachers just gave me my life back.”

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Four Traits of a Self-Care School