Reducing the Mental Health Stigma in Classrooms

Amber Ginter

iBelieve Contributing Writer
Published May 20, 2024
Reducing the Mental Health Stigma in Classrooms

When stigmas are expressed in Christian contexts, these can be especially damaging to our students' faith.

Five years ago, I started teaching. I never imagined answering such a divine call. Most people assume teachers wear many hats. That would be true. What many don’t realize, however, is how effective secondary educators can be at reducing mental health stigmas in the classroom. If we can learn early intervention and prevention strategies, we will be more effective in handling mental health issues with ease

What Is a Stigma?

A stigma is defined as “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” This looks like calling someone "crazy" if they struggle with mental health or "lazy" if they struggle with depression. 

Because I’ve taught in both private and public sectors, and emphasized the importance of faith to mental health, I want to be clear: When stigmas are expressed in Christian contexts, these can be especially damaging to our students' faith. If you’re a teacher or student of faith working in or attending a public school, you’ll also see why this is crucial. 

Statements like “You’re suffering because you’re sinning,” “Anxiety is a failure to trust God,” or “Depression is a sin,” carry much weight and help no one. Instead, they cause honest and faithful Christians to question their sanity, their relationship with God, and how much they can trust others. As a teen and young adult, these stigmas were said of me. I felt alone, fearful, and ashamed. Can you relate?

If we want to fight negative and untrue assumptions about our mental health, we have to begin by not believing them about ourselves or allowing them to stop us from living. This step is a process and not as easy as “just not thinking about them.”

Why Does This Matter?

These things matter because our students matter. Check out these stats from private and public schools alike:

-Just over half (55%) of U.S. public schools offer mental health assessments for students, but fewer offer treatment.

-The largest share of schools reported that their efforts were limited by inadequate funding (54%) or inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals (40%).

-64% of schools said that lack of community involvement and support did not limit their efforts. 

What does this mean for us? Most schools are offering assessments for students' mental health and then stopping not because they want to leave them hanging but because they have nothing else to offer. If 55% of public schools offer these assessments, but fewer offer treatment, 45% aren’t offering anything.

It seems strange why schools would lack funding and access to mental health professionals. Mental health is a worldwide epidemic. As a teacher, I saw this first-hand. I wore the role of educator, friend, counselor, and therapist most days. Student after student would tell me how they were anxious, depressed, angry, or moody. I understood because I also struggled with mental health issues at their age (and still do). I always did my best to listen, offer advice, and guide them to proper help through the counseling office or a referral. But our students need more. Our students deserve more. 

The biggest excuses I hear regarding this lack of funding or access are time, money, and stigma. Training educators in mental health is extensive and timely. Most programs cost a decent amount, and equipping a school with these resources can be costly. Similarly, many schools don’t want to gain a reputation for being that school. 

How Can Teachers and Administrators Help?

While the schools I worked at over the years weren’t perfect, they implemented practices I would encourage all educators to participate in. If possible, recommend the following tips to your administration and ask them to implement them:

1. Get Mental Health Certified

A certification won’t teach you everything you need to know for every dire mental health situation, but it will give you tools in the toolbelt you can refer back to when the time comes. 

When I was student teaching, I remember thinking, “Teaching is so hard.” The students didn’t want to respect me, and it took nearly five months for that to happen. I had the tools I needed to be a good teacher, but nothing, not even student teaching, would prepare me for what having a classroom of my own would be like. 

Many of you wish I could prepare you for every mental health crisis you’ll ever face. I did, too. But it’s utterly impossible. What is possible, though, is giving you resources in the here and now that you can apply later. I might be biased, but the last school I worked at received training from Youth Mental Health First Aid USA by the Youth Mental Health First Aid USA National Council for Mental Wellbeing. The training took a few days, and we counted it as Professional Development. 

Getting certification is a form of prevention and early intervention. It helps teachers answer the call to mental health issues before they arise. Why? Because being informed is a blessing. 

2. Learn to Reduce Stigmas in Your Classroom

During my fifth year of teaching, I often told my students there’s a difference between what you can and can’t control. I asked them to be vulnerable and transparent with me because I would always be that way with them. 

There are going to be times stigmas and unkind things are said in your classroom. Those are times and opportunities you can respond to. Offering a kind rebuttal and refuting the comment are acceptable responses. More so, use that time for a quick lesson on mental health. Let me explain:

A couple of months ago, a student in class called someone emotional because they were crying. I sent the crying student to the counseling office to remove them from the situation but then spent three minutes addressing the situation behind why that student may have been crying. I said something like this:

“Before we continue with today’s lesson, I want to remind you guys that I’m always here for you. If something is going on, you aren’t obligated to share it with me, but it does help me understand. That way, if you’re putting your head down on your desk or sleeping, I understand why. I won’t keep bugging you to pay attention if there’s a legitimate reason. There’s a difference between doing that every day because you’re lazy, or doing it one day because you didn’t sleep last night and got into a fight with your parents. I wish my teachers had known what was going on when I was growing up. They couldn’t see the trauma I lived through.”

This was a good response because it emphasized each student’s mental health. I was conscious of how the words I said came across. It took the focus off the student crying in class and asked them to look within themselves. It was also within my control because it was in my classroom. 

There will be times when you hear and see things beyond your classroom. You won’t always be able to intervene and fix everything, but you can exemplify proper behavior and encourage fellow staff and students to respond similarly. 

If teachers, students, and administration can learn to reduce stigmas inside and outside of the classroom, this can serve as prevention and early intervention. 

Here’s why this matters:

-Today, Millennials and Gen Z generations report mental health issues more than previous generations

-Barna finds that more than 50% of all mental disorders show signs of symptoms by fourteen and 75% by twenty-five

-Yet, less than 20% seek or find help in the church because they perceive judgment. According to the University of California San Francisco, young adults (18-25) have the highest prevalence of any mental illness (AMI) (44%).

3. Make Mental Health Awareness the Norm

The final tip I would advise would be to make mental health awareness the norm. 

A fellow teacher inspired me in this realm. Every week, she taught her students coping skills, healthy exercises, and grounding techniques to help deal with mental health struggles. Although this is easier to implement in PE or art classes, all subjects have the potential to implement this practice well. 

For all you English teachers (like myself), try implementing grounding exercises (deep breathing, journaling, taking short walks) in the first or last few minutes of your class. Paying attention to your students and learning to read their body language is key. 

If your students are on edge or stressed, see if you can take your lesson outside. If they seem jittery or anxious, demonstrate deep breathing with the class. You can even place the need on yourself by saying something to the effect of, “Hey, guys! I’m feeling stressed right now, so how about we take a couple of deep breaths and stretch for the next two minutes? When you’re feeling good, take a seat and start today’s journal.”

I know that conversations and implementations like these aren’t easy. Educators are busy and crazy stressed. The last thing most of us want to hear is more stuff for us to do. But I promise you, if you learn to attune yourself to your students' mental health needs, you’ll never look back. You will create lasting and trustworthy relationships with them. And you’ll serve and strengthen the next generation in a way you never knew was possible. 

We talk a lot about mental health, but if all we do is talk, no one will ever heal. Help start this healing process today. I’ll be cheering you on. 

Agape, Amber

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/tiero

amber ginter headshotAmber Ginter is a teacher-turned-author who loves Jesus, her husband Ben, and granola. Growing up Amber looked for faith and mental health resources and found none. Today, she offers hope for young Christians struggling with mental illness that goes beyond simply reading your Bible and praying more. Because you can love Jesus and still suffer from anxiety. You can download her top faith and mental health resources for free to help navigate books, podcasts, videos, and influencers from a faith lens perspective. Visit her website at