Teachers shape the minds of young adults and help them realize their true potential, but can they also make a difference in the mental health of their students? A new study involving 509 British youths suggests that an intervention from a teacher or faculty member and subsequent 90-minute group therapy sessions can relieve anxiety in teens.

The study, conducted over a two-year period, used Cognitive Behavioral Therapy methods to target one of four specific personality profiles: anxiety sensitivity, hopelessness, sensation seeking, or impulsivity. Results from self-reported questionnaires revealed that these sessions significantly reduce anxiety, depression, and conduct disorders in the long term.

The Faculty

Teachers, counselors, and pastoral staff in this study, not only administered the group therapy sessions, they also provided secondary information on student behavior, which helped confirm the self-reported results of the students. Not just any faculty member was chosen to administer the sessions, however. Participating staff underwent a three day training workshop and four hours of supervision in two full length interventions with a clinical trainer and a group of students, who were not involved in the study. They were also graded based on performance and adherence to their training.

But the affect a faculty member can have on the future of the student isn't a new concept. As early as 1996, a study of after school programs revealed that these programs promote better behaviors and increase self-esteem as well as improve a student's learning capabilities. These programs are often run the same people that were trained to intervene in the study.

Another study showed that teachers are often better informants on a child's behavioral problems than a child's own mother. Though these are not the same as internalized problems (in which mothers were the better informants), teachers are a reliable aid for predicting anxiety, depression, or other emotional problems that are often expressed in a learning environment.

Teenagers and Anxiety

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder and 50 to 75% of people with impulse-control or anxiety disorders develop these issues during adolescence. This new data could change the way we look at education and could also drastically change the role of teachers outside the classroom.

Overall, the frequency of mental health issues of the 509 participants in the study was reduced by 25 to 33%. Similar interventions in America could result in major reductions in mental health problems in US youth.

Applying the Knowledge

Teachers are already on the lookout for anxiety in their students. In fact, many already receive training to recognize the signs of mental disorders. Caroline Miller* is a seventh grade Language Arts teacher in California. In her many years as a teacher, she has intervened to better a child's emotional state. “Our teacher training provides us with warning signs to watch for and suggested responses," she said, “we are encouraged to follow our 'gut' if we have concerns about a student."

Miller's intuition helped her to identify a student with severe anxiety in one of her classes this year. “I contacted his parents during the first few weeks of school and shared my concerns about his anxiety," she said. Both parents had been worried about their son's anxiety and noting that it had been getting worse, but had yet to take action. “With the parents' permission, I referred the boy to a local counseling service which has a therapist right here on campus. He is now meeting with the therapist every week and seems to be showing some improvement," she said.

But further application of teacher-induced therapy sessions means more teacher training and more student engagement. In areas like West Virginia, group counseling sessions are already being applied in elementary, middle, and high school settings. But, these sessions are conducted by a guidance counselor, not a teacher. If teachers are given the opportunity to conduct these sessions, students might trust them more than a guidance counselor they have not met previously.

* = names have been changed

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Date of original publication:

Updated: August 27, 2016