The topics of trauma and mental health can be distressing. If you experience any trauma symptoms yourself as you review and/or discuss this material, please feel free to take time away from this topic and/or to seek support from a trusted individual.
Many of our students and families are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and trauma. We, as educators, are experiencing those challenges alongside our students, so addressing mental health and trauma is now a non-negotiable priority for schools.
As we learn strategies to help mitigate trauma and bolster social, emotional, and mental well-being, it’s important to differentiate between trauma and mental health challenges, and the role that SEL plays in addressing both.
In this and the following modules, we will:
- Learn to recognize the signs of trauma in students of different ages
- Understand Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), tolerable, chronic, and toxic stress—and how each can impact development
- Reflect on our experiences and how they inform our response to trauma
- Learn the qualities of environments that address trauma and foster social, emotional, and mental wellbeing
- Learn about the developmental practices, protective factors, and positive childhood experiences that buffer the effects of trauma and meet the needs of PreK-12 students
- Explore what constitutes a mental health crisis and what to do if you identify a student in need of more intensive supports
What is trauma?
Trauma is the result of “a single event or series of events, or set of circumstances that is physically or emotionally harmful or threatening, and that has a lasting negative impact on a person’s ability to function and their physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Prior to the pandemic, in the United States alone, more than 1 in 3 children had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as exposure to violence or drug abuse, the loss of a family member, and physical or sexual abuse. The incidence of ACEs is now exponentially higher given children’s experiences during 2020 and 2021 where violence and abuse in the home increased and hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people worldwide continue to die from COVID-19.
Researchers distinguish single-incident “trauma” (e.g., a sexual assault), from “complex trauma,” occurring after multiple incidents (e.g., emotional neglect), often at the hand of a significant caregiver. Researchers are also bringing more attention to intergenerational trauma (e.g., sexual abuse, addiction) and/or historical trauma (e.g., effects of colonization and/or forced assimilation) and how maternal and paternal traumatized states may impact their children.
As a society, we are now faced with the cascading ‘collective traumas’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic recession and job loss, race-related injustice and unrest, and weather-related disasters tied to climate change.
What is mental health?
Mental health is a critical part of our overall wellness. According to MentalHealth.gov, it “includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”
Mental health issues are not uncommon. Indeed, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that in 2019, one in five American adults, or 20.6%, have a mental illness, with young adults having the highest prevalence. And almost half of adolescents aged 13-18 have experienced a mental disorder at some point.
While trauma can negatively impact a person’s mental health, it’s not the only cause. Biological factors such as genetics and brain chemistry can also contribute to mental health challenges.
The role of SEL in addressing mental health
Mental health is sometimes used interchangeably with SEL in schools, and while they’re connected, they are distinct. SEL is the human development process for building the competencies necessary for whole, healthy, productive, self-determined lives. More specifically, these competencies are defined by Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as self management, self awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
Social and emotional competencies, developed in the context of relationships though SEL instruction and practice opportunities, can protect against risks that contribute to poor mental health and promote strengths (e.g., coping strategies, forming positive and supportive relationships); however, mental health needs can often extend far beyond what students may receive in a universal (Tier I) approach to SEL.
In other words, students with mental health challenges will benefit from universal SEL strategies and programming, but these strategies and approaches will likely be insufficient to meet the needs of students struggling with serious mental health conditions.
Systemic SEL programming involves identifying and providing evidence-based social and emotional supports (which include mental health supports) for every tier of the system. CASEL describes this as “a continuum of supports.” These range from “universal strategies that promote strengths and prevent risks (Tier 1), to targeted or early interventions for students who have been or might be exposed to risk factors (Tier 2), and finally to intensive treatment and intervention supports (Tier 3).” (CASEL, 2020).