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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5

4 Pillars of School Mental Health

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Schools can cultivate four key approaches to support students’ well-being.

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School CultureSocial-emotional learning
Four Pillars of School Mental Health
Credit: Shutterstock
Editor’s Note: Stephen Popp's name was misspelled in this article in the print February 2024 Educational Leadership.
Many pressures—some common, like tough academic expectations or lingering loss and isolation from the year-plus of lockdown, some more individualized—are negatively impacting students’ mental health. In 2021, the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that 42 percent of students felt persistently sad or hopeless, and 29 percent experienced poor mental health. Twenty-two percent of the youth surveyed indicated they seriously considered attempting suicide, while 10 percent had attempted suicide. Understandably, teachers and school administrators feel an urgency to respond to the mental health challenges their students are facing and how those challenges surface in school. We’ve felt this urgency ­ourselves and found effective ways to respond.
Several years ago, we lost several young people in our area to suicide, which brought suicide prevention to the forefront of our attention as school leaders. Those tragedies galvanized our efforts to foster a community at The John Cooper School (an independent preK–12 school in Texas) in which discussions about mental health were destigmatized. They prompted us to reassess our approach to promoting mental health and well-being. Through this process, we have learned—and continue to learn—important lessons about ways to improve schoolwide mental health, and we’d like to share what we’ve learned. We have devised a strategy built on what we call the “four pillars”—four aspects of support on which ­individuals and communities must base their efforts to strengthen mental wellness. These aspects all start with the letter A: aware, active, accepting, and available.

When students and adults see mental health in the context of overall health, it starts to eliminate the stigma around mental health challenges.

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Becoming Aware

Cultivating awareness is like turning on a light. If you walk through a room full of furniture in the dark, you will likely trip and bump into things. You’ll move around easily and safely if you switch on the light. If we want to make progress in promoting mental health and eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness, the first step is to turn on the light in a room that’s been dark for a long time. Those of us most involved in creating our school’s overall strategy (our head of school, division heads, deans, counselors, and faculty members) chose to prioritize raising awareness about mental health. We hoped to openly communicate the importance of mental well-being and how to strengthen it. We knew we needed to educate ourselves about mental health challenges—how to recognize them and what to do when we, or someone we know, is experiencing them.
At our school, we decided to work on the pillar of awareness by providing teachers, students, and parents with a wellness framework that integrates mental and emotional well-being as one of several interconnected components. The idea behind the framework is to talk about mental health as another component of our overall health, as opposed to talking about it only in terms of mental health challenges. The Wheel of Health, a graphic developed by Duke University Health System, illustrates this framework. In this wheel, you are at the center of your health, surrounded by your mindful awareness first, then by various components it’s important to be aware of, from nutrition and lifestyle to your mental and emotional well-being. Surrounding all of this, as the outer part of the wheel, is your community. This image illustrates how all these components are interconnected and influence each other; our mental and emotional well-being are inseparable from the rest of our lives.
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This graphic representation of a wellness framework helped us normalize conversations about mental health. We incorporate the Wheel of Health into our wellness presentations to the school community, we showcase it in assembly presentations, and parents discuss it in our parent wellness groups.
When students and adults start to see mental health in the context of overall health, it helps eliminate the stigma around mental health challenges. Most people don’t have much stigma or embarrassment around taking care of their physical health or the concept of “taking care of your health” in general, so when mental health is considered within the context of physical health, stigma lessens. This makes it easier for students or adults to ask for help when mental health challenges are affecting their happiness.
There are free resources any school can use to build such awareness. Three we recommend are:
  • The National Institute of Mental Health, which offers brochures, fact sheets, and other materials on mental health disorders and related topics. Materials range from coloring books about anxiety for children to brochures with FAQs about suicide. Printed materials can be ordered free and resources are available in digital formats and in Spanish.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which has an engaging presentation called “Ending the Silence” that helps middle and high school students learn about the warning signs of mental health conditions and what steps to take if they or a loved one are showing symptoms. The group also offers NAMI Basics, a free six-session online education program for parents and caregivers of youth experiencing mental health symptoms.
  • The University of British Columbia, which offers a course for teachers who want to build their mental health literacy and a course to help educators apply an online mental health curriculum resource for students ages 12–19.

Getting Active in Supporting Mental Health

If you want to raise awareness in a community, you need to be active, and if you want to engage in mental health promotion, you need to be active. Our work at John Cooper aims to mobilize more and more members of our school community so that eventually, everyone will actively engage in the process of building a healthier life and a healthier community. One way we are doing this is by partnering with an organization called Active Minds.
Active Minds is a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to improving adolescent and young adult mental health awareness and advocacy. In 2016, we created a chapter of Active Minds in our high school, believing that to make lasting change in our school, our students needed to be actively involved in building our strategy to uplift mental health in our community. They needed to be mental health advocates.
Students recognized the importance of the work immediately. Our chapter leaders took the initiative to spread the word about the importance of mental health in a variety of ways. One student started an online business selling T-shirts with messages about mental health, such as “It is OK to not be OK,” and donated the profits to mental health groups. Some students have presented at the Active Minds National Conference in Washington, D.C., and others have continued to ­participate in Active Minds at college.
Students at our school mobilize the community to support mental health in other ways, as well. During our annual Wellness Week, which students help organize, we devote each day to different components of wellness—mental health being one of them.
Our school regularly hosts wellness meetings for parents, where we explore books like The Emotional Lives of Teenagers by Lisa Damour (Ballantine, 2023), present on various wellness-related topics, and offer a platform to openly discuss their concerns. We often present on mental and emotional well-being during school assemblies. Taking such actions signals that fostering the habits of well-being is a priority. A student once told us, “I admit that I don’t read the wellness messages [weekly emails the school sends] but seeing that they keep coming every week means a lot. I am happy to be at a school that values my well-being.” While we don’t yet have qualitative data about the results of our efforts, we’ve had a lot of feedback from students and parents about the helpfulness of our recent focus on supporting mental health.
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John Cooper School students lead a mental health awareness activity during Wellness Week. Photo courtesy of The John Cooper School.

Moving Toward Acceptance

The stigma attached to mental health challenges is a product of our judgmental minds. People tend to judge negatively what they don’t understand. That judgment leads to avoidance, which reinforces negativity and further blocks understanding. If we want to truly understand anything, we need to accept that there’s a lot we don’t know—and accept that running away from unpleasantness isn’t always the right approach. We need to accept that perhaps we don’t fully understand our internal experiences or somebody else’s. Acceptance means stepping out of the automatic judgments our minds produce and approaching things with curiosity instead.
At our school, we talk with students about the difference between being an “emotion scientist” and an “emotion judge.” This idea was developed by Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. He explains that emotion scientists are curious and ask questions about their own internal states and those around them. On the other hand, emotion judges make assumptions based on the belief that there are correct and incorrect ways to feel. For example, when feeling angry, a person thinking like an emotion scientist might ask themselves, Why am I feeling this way or I wonder what’s causing this anger, while an emotion judge might think, I should not be feeling so angry. This explanation resonates with many students and adults.
At John Cooper, we also like to be precise in the way we talk about emotions. Instead of talking about “positive and negative” emotions, leaders encourage all school adults to talk about “pleasant and unpleasant” emotions. Plenty of feelings might be unpleasant but not necessarily negative, like frustration. If something is preventing our progress while we perform a task, it’s natural to feel frustration. If we label that feeling as negative, we automatically want to avoid it. If, instead, we simply label it as unpleasant, it’s easier to use that feeling as information to guide our thinking and actions (e.g., a feeling of extreme frustration around a task helps us realize we need more ­preparation or help).
Another way we build this pillar is by having a speaker from Active Minds speak to students every year to share stories about their own mental health struggles and how they overcame challenges. Their well-crafted stories, based on lived experiences, resonate with teenagers and their parents. For example, the founder of Active Minds, Alison Malmon, shared her story about losing a brother to suicide, which galvanized interest in mental health in our school community.

In our school, we talk about the difference between being an emotion scientist and an emotion judge.

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Being Available

If we could summarize this pillar in one sentence, it would be: “You are not alone.” Our school wants to ensure that no community member feels they are on their own when facing difficulties. One obstacle to being available to someone struggling with mental health is not knowing what to say or what to do. So, our school prioritizes training students, parents, and teachers in a communication strategy developed by Active Minds called V-A-R, which stands for validate, appreciate, and refer.
When someone is talking about their struggles, our reflex is often to try to alleviate that person’s pain. This often takes the form of telling the person how to fix their situation. With all the best intentions behind them, words about “what you should do” might leave the other person feeling unheard or, worse, invalidated. So, the first step in V-A-R is to validate feelings. The listener makes the conscious decision to make space for uncomfortable feelings (“You’re feeling sad—I get it”). Then, they take time to appreciate the person’s courage in being vulnerable (“It takes guts to be so open with your feelings”). Last, they reflect on what the other person needs: Do they simply need to vent? Or do their words and manner indicate that it would be good for them to speak with a trained counselor or for you to refer them elsewhere?
There are many other resources schools can use to train their members on how to be available to others, including Youth Mental Health First Aid and Classroom WISE. The Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has developed the “Circle of Concern Strategy,” designed to strengthen empathy and to foster understanding and consideration for others.
There are also trainings designed specifically for suicide prevention. The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide offers Act of FACTS, a free online course to help educators identify warning signs, risk factors, and clarify their role in the prevention process. The QPR Institute offers trainings on how to recognize the warning signs of someone in crisis and at risk of suicide, and how to question, persuade, and refer someone to help.

A Worthy Endeavor

Building these four pillars in a school is a never-ending endeavor. These four qualities are like a compass: They provide a sense of direction and purpose that helps people and communities move toward well-being. We’ve seen how turning on the light of awareness, empowering students to be active, and signaling acceptance and availability helps all our learners. While we still have work to do, students and faculty now use a shared vocabulary when speaking about emotions, well-being, and their concern for others. Whether teachers are employing V-A-R or students are reaching out to adults in our community to share concerns for their friends, the four pillars have provided our community with proactive strategies to navigate challenges and move toward well-being.

Reflect & Discuss

When your school hosts health-related activities, like “wellness fairs” or workshops, does content focus on caring for mental health as much as physical health?

Consider the idea of being an “emotion scientist” versus an “emotion judge.” Might an “emotion scientist” approach change how certain students’ behavior affects you?

How could you talk with students about being an emotion scientist vs. emotion judge—and what might result if you did?

End Notes

1 Centers for Disease Control and ­Prevention. (2021). Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Data Summary & Trends Report.

Juan-Diego Estrada is the director of wellness and an upper school counselor at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, Texas. He is a certified teacher of the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence and leadership program Search Inside Yourself and a Duke-trained health and well-being coach.

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