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Written by Paget Hetherington
on August 31, 2020

Supporting students’ mental health is critical to creating a safe and healthy learning environment for every student. However, mental health support is not a one-size-fits-all solution, so in order to promote equity in student mental health support, it’s important to consider the unique mental and emotional experiences of students in groups that are marginalized.

Recently, we’ve talked about supporting the mental health of BIPOC students, creating safe spaces for students who identify as LGBTQ+, and promoting accessibility to improve the mental well-being of students with disabilities. While these are all personal qualities that students have, some students are also marginalized because of their life experience—particularly factors of socioeconomic status.

According to the American Psychological Association, socioeconomic status (SES) encompasses income, educational attainment, occupational prestige, and subjective perceptions of social status and class. These factors affect quality of life as well as the opportunities and privileges afforded to people by society. SES has a direct effect on both psychological and physical health for all members within a family of a particular socioeconomic level, including children and adolescents who don’t yet contribute to the family economically.

In terms of mental health, evidence shows that lower SES is linked to negative psychological symptoms. Students who have lower levels of SES are more likely to experience greater struggles and unfavorable conditions in their everyday lives that directly affect mental health, including discrimination, homelessness, violence and abuse, food insecurity, substance abuse, and more.

Because positive mental health is essential to students’ ability to function and learn on a daily basis, it’s important to provide students experiencing SES-related mental health concerns with individualized support. With this in mind, here are some ways educators, counselors, parents, and classmates can support students with lower levels of SES who are facing mental health challenges.

Ensure Students’ Basic Needs Are Met
It’s impossible to support students’ mental and emotional needs until students’ basic needs are satisfied. This includes physiological needs such as food, water, and sleep, as well as safety needs like a stable home and trusted adult relationships. Supporting students’ basic needs are a crucial first step toward building positive mental health. Here are a few resources for helping students who are experiencing struggles with meeting their physiological and safety needs:

Reach Out and Offer Your Support
Many students experiencing mental health concerns related to SES are surrounded by adults who are also experiencing struggles related to SES. Receiving mental health feedback from adults who are also experiencing mental health and socioeconomic concerns can be detrimental to students’ mental well-being, leading kids to feel guilty about their emotions and to build unhealthy coping strategies. Educators outside of this experience can offer a particular type of support that can be helpful to improving students’ mental health.

It’s not unusual for students of lower SES backgrounds to normalize the adversity they experience, which often leads to disregard for negative mental health experiences they have. If you are seeing signs that a student may be experiencing mental health concerns related to their SES, it’s crucial to reach out to see if they are in need of any form of support—emotionally or otherwise.

For some students, support can be as simple as lending an ear to enable students to communicate their struggles to a trusted adult. It can also be helpful to provide students with resources to further guide them toward programs and services that might be able to offer them assistance. While these levels of support can be helpful to many students, there are some who will benefit most from being connected to mental health professionals and social workers in your school or district to address the deeper and more severe issues they may be experiencing.

Every student has a widely different experience based on their socioeconomic status, and these are just a few ways you can support the mental health of students experiencing SES-related struggles. By taking the steps to check in with students and offer them support and resources, you can greatly improve the positive mental health of those with lower SES backgrounds in your school.

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