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Tips for Schools to Help a Student Struggling with Addiction or Mental Illness

By Comments off By the Numbers: Tips for Schools to Help a Student Struggling with Addiction or Mental Illness

Teachers and counselors have one of the busiest jobs trying to keep track of all of their students, their assignments, tests, attendance, etc. What about their students’ health, physically and mentally?

So much emphasis is placed on academic achievement and college prep, I think sometimes the mental wellbeing of the student is lost. Kids today have so much pressure put on them by society, school, parents, peers, themselves. No wonder mental illness, chemical health issues and suicide are issues that continue to plague our young people.

When my son was struggling with drug use, I saw signs that something was off, but did the school? This is not about placing blame on myself, on my son, or on the school. It’s about doing all we can as a community and as families to intervene so we can help with resources as much as we can.

What to do if a student is struggling

If teachers and counselors see their students exhibiting any of these behaviors, they should reach out to the student. They should initiate a conversation with the student and get their parents involved as quickly as possible, as any behavioral health issue is affects the entire family.

  • Skipping class
  • Dropping performance at a steady rate or a quick decline
  • Withdrawn, alone more than in a group of friends
  • Hygiene is lacking or is changed
  • More tired than a typical teen
  • Quit a sports team they have been a part of for years

Ways to help a struggling young person

In my experience with public schools and also recovery schools, there are some actions schools can take to be more proactive and preventive. Hopefully these steps will help keep kids safer and willing to seek out guidance and support.

  1. Education to parents, students and staff around current and real issues facing the students. Basics around mental and chemical health, suicide, wellness/mindfulness strategies, stress, adversity, perfectionism, building resiliency, conflict resolution and healthy relationships are just several of a long list of topics that could be helpful as prevention. Getting students and parents engaged in this process rather than preaching, “just say no,” is far more effective.
  2. Weekly group check ins. Counseling staff can develop this with all of the kids, make it mandatory for some, and create their own structure. Having a social worker on hand to talk to individuals who may need additional support would be a good idea. The intent is to have a regularly scheduled time for students to get support and for the staff to see who may be struggling.
  3. Open door policy. Students should be able to walk in to talk rather than have to make an appointment. Counselors should be visible. The intent is to be available to all students.
  4. Allow time and space for reflection, meditation and mindfulness. This can be a small corner in a department or office, a place with comfortable furniture that can be even a five-minute “time out” for someone struggling. The intent is for students to learn to self-manage feelings, self-regulate, and be empowered to take control of their reactions.
  5. Sober activities that are promoted not as “sober” activities but as fun activities high school students can do that are not revolving around drugs or alcohol. Examples include service projects, museums, outdoor activities. that get students connecting with each other and the greater community. The intent is for students to be able to connect outside of school doing healthy activities.

Examples in the community

There are schools doing this well, and there are even schools that are tailored for the student who is in recovery. P.E.A.S.E. Academy, the oldest recovery high school in the country, starting its twenty-ninth year of serving students, is a school that provides support to students who are in recovery without having the student have to give up their education. No student should have to choose between their recovery and their education – it can be extremely difficult for a high school student to return to their “home” school after being in treatment for substance use or mental illness. This school provides support, structure and resources so that students can truly be successful and supported at the same time.

Collegiate recovery programs are also becoming more popular for those students in recovery, and also for students who want a sober experience in college. Augsburg University’s StepUp program is a great example of this. The counseling support, sober living on campus, activities promoted around recovery and the variety of other resources sets a college student up for success in school and beyond in life.

It is up to all of us, schools, communities and families, to be proactive and open to learning that will help best support our students.

Are you a guidance counselor or teacher wondering how to help students you suspect of having chemical dependency or mental health issues? Please email us at