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Supporting Staff with Mental Health Issues

By Erich May
March 2015, Volume 38, Issue 7

In my state, Pennsylvania, every middle and high school must have a Student Assistance Program. The purpose of the program is to identify students who have mental health issues or are engaged in behaviors that inhibit their success in school. Trained team members then provide supports in school and direct families to services outside the school.

What the Commonwealth does not require, though, is an Employee Assistance Program. These programs, which some districts do provide through their health insurers, can offer short-term counseling, mental health benefits referrals, and crisis intervention.

Just as Student Assistance Programs remove barriers to academic success, Employee Assistance Programs promote professional success. Though it is smart for districts to put these programs in place, many may not be able to afford it. What, then, is the principal or a colleague to do when a teacher or other staff member asks for help in dealing with a personal crisis?

Action Steps

Start by listening. Just being there for someone and lending an ear can be a great help. That might be all a person needs. To be a good listener, you must not violate your staff member’s trust, unless it appears that he or she poses a risk to him or herself or others; then, you must call for help. Remember to follow up with the person, checking in every week or so to see how things are going.

Suggest healthy outlets. If the person asks you for advice, offer healthy strategies to manage his or her anxiety, such as doing yoga, enrolling in an art class, or spending a weekend at the beach. Remember that some mental issues can come and go. “Mental health conditions are not necessarily constant in people’s lives; people manage them. Something might happen to create a period of acuity, and then we need to provide support,” says Debbie Plotnick of Mental Health America.



Finding Help

Consider the individuals who and organizations that may be able to offer this person support, including:

His or her family physician. “How we treat our bodies is how we treat our brains,” says Meghan Maxwell of the Mental Health Association of Connecticut. “Anyone who has concerns should be directed to a doctor. [A doctor can] check for anything that might cause a change in mood, thought, or behavior.”

A mental health professional. These include more than psychologists and psychiatrists. There are also Licensed Clinical Social Workers, marriage and family therapists, counselors, and others who have the credentials and training to provide therapy. Most health insurance providers’ websites have a search function to locate mental health professionals.

Clergy. Many churches sponsor support groups for individuals facing tough times or for families in need of counseling.

State departments of mental health, or Mental Health America, a national network with affiliates in almost every state. Most mental health resources are rooted in counties and states, which vary widely in their organization and offerings. In many places, however, students and staff alike can call the same crisis hotlines, and your guidance counselor or school psychologist can give you that number and suggest other local resources.

Infoline, spearheaded by United Way. Available in 50 states and to over 90 percent of Americans, it can be reached by calling 211. It offers information on essential human services and safety nets ranging from home health care to crisis intervention.

The Bottom Line

If someone comes to you with mental health concerns, treat him or her as you would someone with any other health condition: ask if he or she has sought help and what accommodations you can help facilitate.

“Mental health conditions are treatable; people do recover,” says Plotnik. “And every family and every community involves people who have experienced a mental health condition.”

Erich May is principal of HOPE for Hyndman Charter School in Hyndman, Pennsylvania.


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