Systemic change to improve mental health 

By Amanda Adams 

Historically, mental health has been overlooked and misunderstood, but now there is a greater understanding of the impact it can have on both teachers and students. The COVID-19 pandemic created the first global event in recent history where people experienced a collective trauma that impacted our mental health in a variety of ways. The high stress situation of dealing with the unknown, isolation and the loss of loved ones has created lasting effects on the mental health of children and adults alike. 

As I have traveled around the state facilitating workshops on understanding trauma and its impact on mental health, teachers have reported feeling overwhelmed, anxious and depressed post pandemic. Some teachers feel as though there hasn’t been enough attention paid to the mental health and well-being of educators and their students.   

In a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, researchers found that over 50% of teachers reported high levels of stress during the school year. High levels of stress not only affect educators’ mental health but also impact their job performance, leading to decreased job satisfaction and increased burnout rates. Therefore, prioritizing teacher mental health is essential for creating a positive and conducive learning environment. 

Mental health concerns among students have reached alarming levels globally. In New Jersey, mental health data highlights the need to address this issue with urgency. According to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, in 2020 alone, there were over 12,000 emergency department visits related to mental health for children and adolescents. According to the New Jersey Department of Education’s Comprehensive School-Based Mental Health Guide, suicide is the third leading cause in youth ages 10 to 24 years old in New Jersey. And 30% of communities in New Jersey didn’t have sufficient access to health care providers in 2020. 

Multi-tiered systems of support 

When students are emotionally well, they are better equipped to engage in their education, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and form positive relationships. Creating a supportive and inclusive learning environment is crucial for addressing these challenges. This most effectively accomplished by creating a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) for mental health in every school. MTSS is a framework that provides a range of supports within a school community, ensuring that mental health is prioritized at all levels. 

At the primary prevention level, schools implement universal practices to promote mental health and provide early interventions. This may include social-emotional learning programs, mindfulness activities and regular mental health check-ins. 

The secondary prevention level focuses on providing targeted interventions to students who may require additional support. School mental health professionals play critical roles in identifying and assisting students who exhibit signs of mental health difficulties. Collaboration between school staff, families and mental health professionals is key in providing these interventions. 

Finally, the tertiary prevention level focuses on intensive interventions for students who require more specialized support. This may involve individual therapy, referral to external mental health services, or the creation of personalized support plans. 

New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services 

New Jersey offers every school free mental health support through the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services (NJ4S). NJ4S adopts the MTSS framework, which provides a multi-tiered approach to addressing students’ needs. NJ4S offers professional development, community partnerships, guidance, resources, and community engagement.  To learn more visit 

By prioritizing mental health, schools in New Jersey can address the alarming rates of stress, burnout, and mental health difficulties. Through the implementation of multi-tiered systems of support, teachers and students can receive the necessary resources and interventions to thrive academically, emotionally and socially. Improving student and staff mental health improves the overall health in the community for generations to come.

Amanda Adams is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division and a coordinator for the NJEA ACCESS Model program. She can be reached at