Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness in Middle School

By Stephanie Filio

Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness in Middle SchoolAs educators, we believe that the educational environment should be inclusive and welcoming to all students. We can celebrate vibrant cultures, recognize boundless gender roles, and identify shifting home lives. But the more we evolve, the more we see that there are also hidden characteristics and more discrete inclusions to consider.

Students affected by mental illness are a much larger population than most people are aware of, and they are in dire need of inclusivity and security against stigma in order to feel safe and able to learn.

Students struggling with mental illness are not the only young people who might feel isolated in a stigmatized environment. Many students leave school to go home to caretakers or family members in psychological and behavioral crisis.

When We Know

We can help students affected by mental illness when we know about their struggles—when we know that the young man laughing with his friends also goes home and counts his mom’s meds to make sure she is staying healthy, that the girl giving her teacher a play-by-play from her game the day before lost her father to suicide two years ago, or that the student unloading his backpack to hand in his homework has guardians who ensure he sees his counselor three times a week.

But what happens when we don’t know? Students with mental illness in their lives are wrestling with inner conflicts while also trying to navigate a world that feels slightly less made for them. Because our society has had a slowly evolving relationship with mental illness, many students struggle privately.

By raising our students to purge age-old stigmas, we not only help them grow interpersonally, but also allow them the freedom to shed shame and embrace comfort.

Speaking About the Unspoken

Because they don’t want to make students feel singled out, many educators might shy away from addressing mental illness. It is a sensitive subject, and many people feel embarrassed by the disorders they experience in their lives or at home. Though the goal is to ease this embarrassment, privacy absolutely should be respected. We don’t want to glorify or minimize mental illness in any way.

So, where is the line?

Teaching students that mental illness is only a small part of mental health not only reduces the stigma, it also makes it more approachable to teach. And we all should be interested in mental health!

Mental well-being isn’t about suppressing emotions but about learning to identify our feelings and thoughts so that we can begin to understand them and ultimately feel in charge of them. The social and emotional curriculum that school counselors teach helps destigmatize mental health by offering education on how to find our own individual definitions of emotional well-being. Here are some tips for teaching about mental health:

  • Discuss the brain and all the wonderful ways that it works as a system in response to stimuli through basic neurology lessons.
  • Talk about feelings, ensuring that students know that it is okay to feel all emotions.
  • Teach students how to avoid triggers that might breed isolation through journaling and discussing sequential events in a factual way without judgment.
  • Ensure that warning signs are spoken about openly and that they are tended to quickly and attentively.

Changes You Can Make Within Your School

For truly comprehensive results, the whole school must be involved in efforts to reduce stigma regarding mental health. Though school counselors are the heart of social and emotional learning at a school, many supporting roles within schools can promote mental well-being.

  • Integrate mental wellness into your physical wellness curriculum in health and physical education classes. As you present information to students, emphasize that mental health is no different from physical health. The brain is a body part after all!
  • Make informational materials readily available for students to use at their discretion. Cards with statistically common mental illness manifestations during adolescence and young adulthood could be made and displayed in a quiet area of the main office or other social areas.
  • Offer professional development for school staff. Teachers serve students all day and see them in many different contexts, from critical thinking to socializing. Ensuring that teachers have the tools to spot concerning behaviors helps them know what to bring to a counselor’s attention.
  • Create mini-lessons for club advisors and coaches to implement. Students who participate in activities develop special relationships with student activities advisors. Arm these educators with small goals they can meet with their participants.

A Last Note

In the last two editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, around 200 new disorders have been added. This increases the likelihood that a student will be diagnosed with a mental disorder. It also shows that we are a diverse populace. We all have our own battles to face at one point or another—whether or not they are related to mental illness.

Normalizing discussions of mental health and destigmatizing mental and behavioral illness is in no way intended to downplay the importance of therapy and seeking professional help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates that 20 percent of kids ages 13 to 18 have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Of those diagnosed students, 37 percent drop out of school. Ninety percent of youth who die by suicide have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. And 70 percent of the juvenile detention population has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

Educators should all be diligent in our assessment of the behaviors we see in young people. Assisting students in crisis comes before anything else, even when it means letting leadership know that you are not able to complete other tasks in that moment. Constant communication and rapport-building with students’ families is one of the best ways to both assist students and create an environment of support and altruism for all.

Stephanie FilioStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.


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Suggested Resource
A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator by Myles Cooley, Ph.D.


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