Advisers can play a key role in encouraging kids to get help

Mental health is about more than what students think and feel. I should know; I hid my true feelings for years when I was in high school, spending day after day with a fake smile on my face. Now that I’m in college and know many friends still working on finishing high school, I see firsthand that young teens and young adults are faced with uncompromising decisions and complex thoughts related to circumstances beyond their control. As teens’ brains continue to develop and hormones play a major role in guiding day-to-day decisions and actions, teens can feel overwhelmed. But you should also know that there are resources available to help students cope with triggers that may lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.

The big changes the brain is experiencing may be why adolescence is the time when many mental disorders—such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders—emerge. Students are encouraged to do their best and reach their highest potential to promote the work they do for student council and the National Honor Societies (and any other organization that gives them a chance to effect change and create opportunities for the future). However, that potential cannot be met if students are preoccupied with crippling anxiety, self-doubt, or depression—especially in social situations.

Recognizing the Issues

Students all have different ways of coping with stress and dealing with social stigmas. One of the major factors in overcoming these is teaching students they must speak up about these challenges. Student stressors can take many forms—peer pressure, parental pressure, and academic pressure, to name a few. These combined burdens can lead to burnout and depression, two conditions that will only worsen if left unrecognized and untreated.

“Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression—and their single biggest source of stress was school,” cites a New York Times opinion piece “Is The Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?” by Vicki Abeles. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended—and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems,” the article reveals.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides useful information for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn more about the different types of mental health conditions they may suffer from. According to their website (, some common signs of mental illness in students can include:

  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning.
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria.
  • Avoiding friends and social activities.
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy.
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite.
  • Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs.
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing aches and pains).
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress.
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance.

Many schools have also been taking advantage of Adverse Childhood Experiences research and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see Resources sidebar). These programs help monitor priority health risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death, disability, and social problems among youth and adults in the United States.

The Adviser’s Role in Helping Students Cope

Your role as a leader who gives students direction and guidance cannot be emphasized enough. Students look to NHS, NJHS, and NASC advisers for advice and support for many things that require focus and attention to detail, such as event planning and service projects. Advisers of these and other extracurricular programs are in the unique position of interacting with students outside the confines of the typical school day. With much of the academic pressure off, unique bonds between the student and adviser can form. Many students may turn to the advisers they trust most when facing times of crisis, hoping for meaningful answers. “I listen,” says Josephine Zbylut-Birky, student engagement specialist and NHS adviser at Omaha South High Magnet School in Nebraska. “Then, I suggest strongly that students talk to their counselor in order for them to get the correct resources that are available here at school or other places that help and/or support students with stress and crisis.”

Advisers are exceptionally poised to work alongside counselors and school therapists to encourage their students to seek help, whether the situation involves their education or their life outside of school. If given the chance, seize the opportunity to be trained in viable educational services that detail the need for behavioral and mental wellness. Advisers with this training can serve as great resources for students who need someone to talk to and can play a role in preventing certain situations such as bullying or suicide.

Advisers should offer open times to talk, make every attempt to understand where the student is coming from, and encourage the need to seek help if everything has become too much to handle. As a student myself, I learned my limits with school, life, work, relationships, and everything else through experience. I previously suffered an emotional breakdown, and I have since learned that I can change the course of the personal recovery plan that was set for me. I know now that teachers and advisers can only help if they are made aware of students’ feelings and struggles. If our students are willing to speak without fear of discrimination or judgment about how they’re feeling, the floodgates will open and the cycle of stigma on mental illness can begin to be broken. —

Jennifer Alquicira is an undergraduate senior majoring in public health at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), president of NAMI on the UNO campus, and a member of the board of directors of NAMI Omaha.