Virtual Signs of Serious Mental Health Problems: A Teacher’s Guide to Protecting Students

Oct 07, 2020

Today’s students are the most at-risk for mental health problems in a generation. That was already true before the start of this turbulent year, thanks to the advent of the smartphone, the rise of social media and the growing dominance of internet culture in daily life. Now, students face a minefield of new and ongoing trauma-producing challenges, including the upheaval of normal school life caused by COVID-19, financial and social-emotional problems at home related to a parent’s job loss or family death due to the pandemic, parents’ frustrations from juggling multiple demands, and the stressful, systemic realities of racial injustice.

The result: Students are experiencing more depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety than any generation before them, according to the American Psychological Association. And since teachers are on the front lines of this new normal in education, they need to know the virtual signs of students experiencing mental health issues as well as have strategies to address them.

With much of education being delivered in a virtual environment during the pandemic, monitoring students’ mental health is harder, but more critical than ever. Some of the same indicators of distress apply as much in the virtual classroom as in the physical one, such as difficulty participating in class, poor attendance, frequently reporting illness and not completing assignments. But other indicators, such as on-screen interactions with family members and turning off the camera, are new to distance learning.

The key to remaining vigilant to students’ mental health is understanding how students express common mental health challenges within the in-person classroom, while also recognizing the opportunities remote learning provides for identifying students’ mental health needs and responding with effective coping strategies.

Virtual Signals of Mental Health Issues

In this new virtual reality, students experiencing trauma may still act out, but in different ways than they would in person. Arguing, refusing to work, communicating in verbally aggressive ways, or bickering with parents in the background during class are all signs to watch. Likewise, various forms of withdrawal—such as zoning out, not being mentally present when on camera, or struggling with short-term memory due to unhealthy coping patterns developed from stressful or traumatic life events—can serve as warning signs.

Another place to take note of mental health changes: students’ social media accounts. Posts that directly state any intentions to harm themselves or others obviously require immediate attention. But other red flags can be more subtle, such as statements about giving away things or about feeling hopeless.

Hopelessness is a major sign students are struggling with their mental health, and it can manifest verbally or nonverbally. In addition to revealing itself in social media posts, hopelessness can be communicated through actions such as not turning in assignments or appearing more disheveled on screen. Spotting signs of hopelessness is a pivotal step toward being responsive to students’ mental health needs.

Virtual Interventions

There are only so many things a teacher can see through the computer. Getting around that virtual barrier involves using exploratory conversations to help illuminate what might be going on in students’ lives.

Consistent check-in routines can provide opportunities for such conversations. On a daily or weekly basis, the teacher can gently ask some probing questions, such as, “What was most stressful about yesterday?” “Who in your family or online gave you the most energy to get through the day?” “Who—or what—made you feel the most disconnected from people around you?”

It’s a tall order, but teachers need to be able to identify the triggers that set their students off in different ways. Triggers can be personal, familial, cultural or societal, but they’re usually some combination of those sources. For example, if a student “zones out” when hospitals are brought up in conversation, that might indicate a trigger tied to the pandemic. Or, if teachers notice a student of color is hyper-alert around white authority figures, that behavior could be a response to racial justice-related triggers, instead of oppositional behavior. Triggers are often rooted in trauma. Trauma is an emotional injury that impacts kids by making it more difficult to manage strong emotions. When a student is triggered, they may become explosive, leading people to distance themselves, exacerbating the student’s feelings of isolation and anger.

There are many forms of trauma, and what one person experiences as trauma might not have the same effect on someone else. Trauma is an event that makes you feel like your life, or the life of someone you love, is threatened. Many forms of racism are trauma. If someone is aggressive toward you in some way because of your racial group, that can feel like a life-threatening event. Similarly, trauma can be intergenerational, such as that experienced by people whose ancestors were Holocaust victims.

Identifying, acknowledging and monitoring trauma-related triggers is vital, both on an ongoing basis and annually when establishing learning agreements with students. At the beginning of the school year—even if you’re starting fully remote—teachers can create a classroom agreement that engages students in a conversation about what respect, value and community will look like in class. It’s an opportunity for a deeper conversation in which students can talk about what respect looks like in their family, how people know they’re respected, what having someone’s back means in their community.

These culturally responsive approaches to building expectations and relationships early in the school year create a pathway for educators to understand changes in mental health in the virtual space that otherwise may go unnoticed because students simply stop attending the virtual classroom. Relationships are built on honoring the whole student and the cultural values that shape their lives.

Virtual-Friendly, Trauma-Informed Curriculum

Trauma constrains a student’s ability to learn. If we were to explain the brain in a simplified manner for the sake of understanding trauma, students really have two brains: the learning brain and the survival brain.

The survival brain activates students’ stress response and is calmed when others try to bolster a sense of psychological safety—the belief that the student can handle stress or reach out to someone who can help the student manage stress. When students feel psychologically safe, the learning brain more fully activates the social-emotional skills that support students’ management of stressful life experiences and their ability to be responsive to a teacher’s rules and requests. With a trauma-informed approach, the teacher can prioritize safety and then support rules and discipline—not either/or—thus calming the survival brain and forming space for the learning brain to function.

Educators need trauma-specific training that allows them to address the multiple tiers of support students require during challenges presented by a global pandemic and ongoing experiences of racial injustice. Part of that support can be found in a curriculum designed specifically to help educators identify and address racial inequality and mental health problems.

For example, my team designed the Bridge Trauma-Informed Culturally Responsive (TICR for short) curriculum to give educators the tools to detect virtual signs of mental health problems, identify the impact of individual trauma on students and staff, and implement trauma-informed and culturally responsive classroom strategies that promote students’ social-emotional health and academic achievement while supporting staff wellness.

By starting with a curriculum that takes a whole-child approach, respects the heritage of different cultures, and prioritizes well-being, schools can enlighten, engage and elevate both students and staff in order to respond to today’s virtual mental health challenges and support academic achievement through a trauma-informed culture.


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