Mental Illness Diagnosis: Here’s How to Get Help in School

One of the classic signs of mental illness in teens is a drop in grades. The symptoms of mental illness often interfere with the ability to do well in school. For instance, lack of concentration, which is a sign of depression, can hinder a teen’s ability to retain information in class. Feeling rejected by friends and emotionally sensitive can keep a teen from focusing on academic tasks. Additionally, here are some additional ways that depression can interfere with school performance:

  • Difficulty concentrating can lead to poor work completion and performance on exams and assignments.
  • Difficulty with planning, organizing, and executing tasks can lead to missing deadlines and not completing papers as assigned.
  • Hypersensitivity can lead to easily hurt feelings, crying, and anger at school, which can lead to unhealthy social interactions among teachers and peers, and even suspension and expulsion from school.
  • Inattention can lead to distractibility and restlessness.
  • Forgetfulness can lead to not turning in assignments on time.
  • Decreased self-esteem and low feelings of self-worth can result in frequent absence from school and truancy, feelings of rejection from peers, and isolation.
  • A negative self-perception can lead to pessimism and suicidal thoughts.
  • A frequent depressed mood can lead to substance abuse, addiction, sexual activity, and other risky and impulsive behavior.
  • Failing at an assignment only encourages a false self-perception of being dumb, incapable, or worthy of rejection.
  • Memory is also often impaired which becomes an obstacle when attempting to study for and pass exams.
  • Class presentations or answering questions in class can be anxiety provoking, and if teens avoid them it may grades and class performance.

Yet, it’s not just depression, other psychological illnesses can interfere with school performance. For instance, hyperactivity, a symptom of ADHD, can also get in the way of learning while in class or attempting to complete homework. And a teen with Bipolar Disorder might skip school and walk the neighborhood during a manic episode. Whether your teen is depressed, anxious, or hyper active, mental illness can get in the way of their school performance. And as indicated above, a drop in grades is often one sign that teens may need mental health support.

Uncovering the Source of the Problem

At the same time, you might know what the problem is. If your teen already has a mental illness diagnosis, then you can move forward in meeting the specific needs your teen has.  Yet, if you’re unsure, then you might need to ask more questions, have more talks with your teen, and discuss your concern with teachers and school staff. Here are a few ways to uncover the possible source of your teen’s drop in grades:

  1. Ask your child. Your teen might give you certain reasons for a drop in grades: “I don’t care about school,” or “getting good grades isn’t going to help me later in life.” However, even these answers might not be thorough enough. You might need to gather more information. At the same time, your teen might be very forthcoming about why grades are low. If you feel your teen is sharing the whole story, then you can decide what to do depending upon the situation. However, also consider the remaining steps below.
  1. Talk to his or her teachers. Discussions with the principle, school counselor, and teachers’ aides. Find out what’s going on at school and become an active participant in your teen’s education. You might get information that points to behavioral or emotional concerns. You might discover symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or even the simple fact that your child needs glasses. Of course, if mental health, emotional, or behavioral concerns exist, seek out the suitable professional support to appropriately address the problem. If signs of bullying, mental illness, or suicidal ideation are present, schedule a mental health assessment for your teen.
  1. Have your teen assessed for depression or another illness. As indicated above, you might want to schedule an appointment with a mental health provider. You can also have your teen assessed by that professional to uncover whether your child is suffering from a mental illness. It’s common for teens to hide their symptoms from parents and teachers. However, with the right mental illness diagnosis, a teen can get the right support, which in turn, may lead to future remission and better grades.

When Your Teen Does Not Have a Mental Illness Diagnosis

Let’s say you took your teen to be assessed and there was no mental illness diagnosis to be found. Your teen instead might be struggling with a transition to a new school, having a hard time staying organized, not taking good care of themselves physically, or another reason may be contributing to your teen’s low grades. If this is the case, here are some steps parents and caregivers can take to slowly uncover the problem as well as support their teen in succeeding:

  1. Limit the use of the phone or tablet. There has been plenty of research that points to the negative effects of technology on teens, and school performance is one of them. Recent research has been pointing to the effects of phone and Internet use on a teen’s mental health. For instance, a teen’s concentration, memory, and energy levels can be affected by the consistent interruptions of texts. Furthermore, too much time on social media can expose a teen to online bullying and risky use of the Internet.
  1. Ensure your teen’s physical health. Help your teen get the right amount of sleep at night. Healthy sleeping and eating patterns can facilitate a healthy mind. Along with this, taking good care of the body with exercise, yoga, and long walks on the weekends can also help with better brain functioning. Of course, having fun at the movies, spending time at the beach, and hanging out with friends is a necessary part of staying psychologically and emotionally healthy, and this in turn facilitates a fit academic life.
  1. Teach your teen healthy coping and time management tools. Given the amount of pressure at this age, another means of support is providing your child with tools to minimize the stress of getting good grades. Talk about time management. Set up systems in the house that facilitate study time, completing homework, and following through on larger class projects. Encourage the use of planners, binders, and other tools to stay well organized. If necessary, stay in communication with your child about what is due for which classes by when. You might create a specific period of time in which the two of you, perhaps along with other siblings, do work together. Setting up a time after school to do homework, even if your teen does this alone in his or her room, at least sets up a structure for meeting school responsibilities. You might check with your teen at the end of that specified time to see if they used that time wisely.

When Your Teen Does Have a Mental Illness Diagnosis

The good news is that when your teen has a mental illness diagnosis, that opens doors to support that is provided by the federal government, the community, and the school your teen attends. When your teen has a diagnosis, they can find support within and outside of the classroom.

Support inside the Classroom: Typically, in the current school system, a child needs to be deemed as requiring “Special Education” and thus giving him or her access to special services. Yet, having a diagnosis does not automatically mean your teen’s eligibility for Special Education services in the school system. The diagnosis your teen received when assessed would need to fall under one of the following categories:

  • the regulation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • learning disabilities
  • seriously emotionally disturbed
  • other health impaired
  • Section 504 (this is a special education provision that can be used to offer certain students education based services)

Once this is determined, then your teen’s school is required to provide additional support to ensure their academic success. For instance, most schools separate classrooms into general and special education, where the special education classrooms might have more teacher’s aides and other additional supports.

It’s important to know that even if your teen’s diagnosis does not fall within one of the above categories, they can still receive help. For instance, a tutor might work one on one with your child. The benefit to this is that there are no labels and no stigma for your child being psychologically or intellectually impaired in some way.

Support Outside of the Classroom: If your teen has a diagnosis, then it’s important to get them therapeutic treatment. This in turn can support their academic success. For instance, the treatment for most diagnoses will usually require a teen participate in psychotherapy, and if needed, medication. For instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy will explore the relationships between an adolescent’s thinking, feeling, and behaving. Family therapy can help improve family relationships which in turn help a teen feel supported, accepted, and loved. Psychotherapy can also help a teen make better choices versus acting impulsively, become more aware of their behavior, and get to know their mental illness diagnosis and how to cope with it. At the same time, if a teen is taking medication, their symptoms will likely decrease, facilitating their ability to excel in their school performance again.

Why It’s Important to Get Help

If you find out that your teen does in fact have a mental illness and that it’s impairing their ability to do well in school, getting help is crucial. For teens, not feeling good on the inside can lead to finding ways to feel better – fast! As a result, some teens might resort to drugs, risky behavior, excessive sexual activity, drinking and more. If you have concerns about your teen’s mental health, seek the attention of a mental health professional.

At the same time, if your teen doesn’t have a mental illness diagnosis, getting help is still important. Low grades can affect a teen’s self-esteem and confidence. If there’s a simple reason behind a teen’s low grades, such as lack of organization or getting used to a new school, parents might talk to a school counselor. Perhaps parents and school staff can develop a plan for supporting a teen through their struggles.

Regardless of your teen’s diagnosis and whether or not your teen has a mental illness, getting support for your teen’s poor academic performance can support the entire family.