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Addressing the mental health of high school students: Expanding training and tools in North Carolina

Across the state of North Carolina, young people’s mental health is at risk of continued decline. The average high school student today has similar levels of anxiety to a psychiatric patient in the 1950s (1). From 2005 to 2014, the number of teens that experienced a major depressive episode jumped by 37 percent (2). In North Carolina, 26 percent of high school students suffer from some form of depression, 16 percent of which have seriously considered suicide (3).

One culprit for the dramatic worsening of students’ mental health could be the increased competitiveness of today’s high schools. The rise of adolescent anxiety reflects today’s realities of being a teenager, including constant testing in school, homework, relationships, and extracurricular activities. Many students face internal battles with little to no person support, and may even feel stigmatized or shamed by their communities for expressing mental health concerns.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is known for its high-achieving students: just this year, it was ranked by the News and Observer as the No. 1 public school district in the entire state. The pressure to succeed is likewise higher, bringing with it students that can no longer cope with countless expectations and responsibilities.

Positive coping strategies and self-awareness tools are often outdated, overlooked, or completely missing from school environments. As a state, we need to find a better way of empowering our students to stay emotionally healthy so that they are able to succeed through high school and beyond. There is, after all, ‘no health without mental health’ (WHO).

How can we expect our students to do well if a quarter of them regularly lose interest in their extracurricular activities, feel sad, lonely, or apathetic, and/or have disturbed sleep patterns? When an entire fourth of the high school population is being limited by mental illness, resources and policies must be expanded. So, then, how can we change the system to promote positive mental health?

Addressing the signs of mental health issues will allow students to receive more effective treatment in school environments. As such, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training provides a way for educators to identify and address signs of mental health issues among students. Recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as an evidence-based intervention that brings proven results, it is a clear contender for a program we can bring to North Carolina Public Schools (4).

As adults that interface with students on a daily basis, it is imperative that teachers, coaches, counselors, and school administrators have a working understanding of how to recognize and mitigate the signs of mental illness. Following MHFA training, most U.S. employees report a 67 percent increase in confidence in their ability to recognize signs of mental illness, 56 percent increase in confidence to reach out to a struggling individual, and 47 percent increase in confidence to connect a distressed person with appropriate resources (6).

To top it off, these gains in the realm of student health are relatively inexpensive. Trained instructors can be found in the MHFA national database, as can courses open to the public. If there are no trained instructors in the area, the school district can send somebody to take a $2,000 week-long course in order to obtain certification. That individual can then come back to the district and train others in Mental Health First Aid (7).

Schools can couple this training with the provision of online mental health screening tools that are freely provided by Mental Health America in English and Spanish (5). These screening tools can help enhance a student’s self-awareness of the types of support available and necessary for them to succeed.

These investments are worthwhile for school districts across the state of North Carolina. Here, we only see the tip of the iceberg as the pressures associated with attending college increase and the stigma of mental health conditions continues to exist. Furthermore, investment in a one-time training course can reap positive effects for students both in the short-term and after graduation.

The goal of a school system is to teach the next generation, but how can we do that when so many students are struggling to feel noticed or supported? It is our responsibility to be proactive in enabling our students to cope with the pressures of wearing the many hats they do so that they can feel empowered and equipped to cope with the demands of everyday life.


1 Leahy, Robert L. 2008. “How Big a Problem Is Anxiety?”  Psychology Today. Accessed February 6, 2018 (  ).

2 Mojtabai, Ramin, Mark Olson, and Beth Han. 2016. “National Trends in the Prevalence and Treatment of Depression in Adolescents and Young Adults.”  Pediatrics 138(6). Accessed February 8, 2018 ( )

3 “Teen Suicide is Preventable.” American Psychological Association. Accessed February 8, 2018 ( research/action/suicide.aspx ).

4 Zobel, Sarah. 2017. “Mental Health First Aid Training.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  Accessed February 6, 2018 ( ).

5 “Mental Health Screening Tools.” Mental Health America. Accessed February 6, 2018 ( ).

 6 “Research & Evidence Base.” Mental Health First Aid. Accessed February 6, 2018 (  )

 7 “Become an Instructor.” Mental Health First Aid. Accessed February 6, 2018 ( become-an-instructor/  ).

Shivpriya Sridhar

Shivpriya Sridhar is a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in Public Policy. She is interested in the intersection of mental health and criminal justice.

Aditi Adhikari

Aditi Adhikari is a sophomore at UNC at Chapel Hill majoring in Public Policy and minoring in Chemistry on the pre-med track. She is interested in neuroscience, mental health, health policy, and the outdoors.

Rachel Despard

Rachel Despard is a sophomore at UNC with majors in Public Policy and Music as well as a Social and Economic Justice Minor.