We need mental health programs in schools more than ever before
I’m guessing I don’t need to convince you about the need for mental health programs in schools. However, you’re probably in a situation where you need to convince others. You may be facing more objections than you did a year or two ago.
You can start explaining the need for mental health services by highlighting these facts that many parents, board members, and school administrators may not be aware of:
- Student mental health has become an emergency. Both the rates and severity of mental health problems among children and teens have skyrocketed in recent years, resulting in behavior problems, violence, self-harm and suicides.
- Decreasing academic performance. Schools are struggling to address learning gaps. But academic performance will not improve until mental health is addressed. Grades and school success are DIRECTLY RELATED to mental health. Students with poor mental health are not able to access learning.
- Mental health impacts ALL students. Students suffering from mental health issues often act out in class or require a lot of time and attention from teachers and administrators. That detracts from the learning process for every student.
- Teachers are giving up. The burden of managing student mental health issues in the classroom has contributed to teachers leaving the profession in droves. Experts are predicting massive teacher shortages in the near future.
Now that you’re armed to explain the need, let’s address the barriers to mental health programs in schools that have arisen (or grown) recently. I’ll share some steps you can take to overcome them and get programs established (or reinstated) in your district.
Mental health programs in schools: 3 barriers and how to tear them down
In the wake of the pandemic, many districts used emergency funding sources (like ESSER) to pay for mental health programs in their schools. Now those emergency funds are no longer available. And states have also reallocated funding, causing some districts to lose even more money.
Districts that didn’t plan ahead for maintenance of mental health programs are now facing a fiscal cliff. It’s easier to cut the programs than get creative and find new ways to pay for them.
HOW TO FIND THE BUDGET:
- Reduce out-of-district expenses. Students with serious mental health issues cost the district upwards of $150,000 per year for placement in out-of-district therapeutic schools. By meeting the needs of a few of those students with in-district mental health programs, you can keep them in their home school. That saves more money than mental health programs cost. It’s actually a net gain for the district and a win for students, staff, and the community.
- Smart spending. You can also add mental health programs that deliver impact with less cost, such as sharing a mental health clinician with another district, or investing in mental health training and coaching for school staff.
- Report on success. If you’re trying to get your program reinstated, create a report showing the impact of mental health support. Include the number of students receiving help, improvements in grades, graduation rates, attendance and behavior, and success stories told by students themselves.
2. Mindset & stigma
Political and social polarization has increased stigma against supporting mental health in schools. This can come from the community, school boards, and administration who may question the role of schools in supporting student mental health.
In the desperation following the pandemic, some of this stigma eased briefly in the scramble to get help as student mental health plummeted. But now that emergency funding is drying up, some are once again questioning the need in an effort to save money.
HOW TO ENCOURAGE A MINDSET SHIFT:
- Educate your entire community about the connection between mental health and academic achievement.
- Build awareness of the consequences of ignoring student mental health problems, incluing violence, suicides, losing teachers, damaging district reputation, and the cost of lawsuits.
- Explain why mental health support IS the school’s responsibility. Schools are required to make education accessible to all in the least restrictive environment. Mental health impacts accessibility to learning. And when districts fail to meet students’ mental health needs, they are often placed in a more restrictive environment.
- Some object to mental health support that serves only a few needy students. Instead, create plans for broad mental health programs that provide services to a larger population of students as well as families. Demographic studies can help identify those who can benefit from mental health support.
3. Staffing & capabilities
Most school districts don’t have staff who are experts in mental health support, or even trained to recognize the signs of mental illness. Even child study team members may not be qualified to handle serious mental health issues and likely don’t have enough time to do so.
But a lack of mental health expertise is not an excuse to overlook the problem. There are many outside resources that can help.
HOW TO BUILD MENTAL HEALTH EXPERTISE:
- Outsource services. Bring in clinical specialists to perform triage and work with the students with the most need. Embedded clinicians can also support school staff and create educational programs for the entire community.
- Train & coach school staff. Teachers and even counselors need help recognizing mental health issues. And even more important, they need to know what to do when they are faced with a troubling situation. Education and coaching from an expert can make a huge difference in staff morale and can help students get the support they need to succeed.
- Build a supportive school climate & culture. “Stigma free” signs don’t do much to change attitudes. Education does. When you build awareness about mental health issues, and create an accepting environment free of shame and blame, that builds a healthy environment where students, staff and the entire community can succeed.
Get proactive about mental health support
Implementing mental health support in schools can seem overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. Get started by downloading our helpful guide to Proactive Mental Wellness in Schools.