The movement for supporting mental health in schools is gaining ground: a NJ state assembly committee signed off on a bill that would mandate depression screenings for public school students in 7th through 12th grades (with parental consent). New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy also signed legislation that requires all New Jersey public schools to include mental health instruction in K through 12 health curriculums. Similar initiatives are popping up in states across the country.
The biggest obstacle, not surprisingly, is funding.
We recently published a podcast and companion guide on obtaining funding for student mental health support programs in public schools. As we shared in the podcast and guide, many of the funding sources that can be used for school-based mental health counseling and support programs require a mental health needs assessment.
Most Directors of Special Services (and other school administrators) are familiar with needs assessments focused on academics. However, you may be unfamiliar with how to do a student mental health needs assessment if your school is not yet providing mental health support.
Here’s a primer and some time-saving resources that can guide your effort and help you get accurate, informative results for developing programs and getting grants.
Mental health needs assessment: a process overview
Get leadership buy in.
Your first step is to talk with your district Superintendent and Business Administrator about the need for mental health support as you see it now and the potential funding opportunities. Find out how your district is currently using each of the funding options discussed in our guide: Funding Student Mental Health Programs in Public Schools.
Chances are, there is at least one source that you’re not taking full advantage of, and you must have a student mental health needs assessment to do so.
Outsource vs. insource?
Once you have made the decision to do a mental health needs assessment, the next question is, should you hire an outside professional or can your district staff conduct it?
If you are concerned about eliminating bias and having impartial results to convince district stakeholders, it may be helpful to outsource this project. However, when you’re doing the research to obtain funding for a program, chances are you will prefer to avoid the cost of hiring a consultant. If you follow the guidelines in this article, you can get valid and informative results doing the assessment yourself.
Assemble a committee.
While the student mental health needs assessment is usually spearheaded by the Director of Special Services, it should be a team effort involving stakeholders such as the Supervisor of Guidance, Assistant Superintendent, as well as Heads of Curriculum.
What do you need to know to develop your student mental health support program and apply for funding? Are you thinking about focusing on a particular population, such as special ed? Will the program be focused on one school or serve the entire district?
Consider the issues you already know about as well. Are disciplinary actions escalating? Is school refusal becoming a big problem? Are you concerned about school safety?
Thinking through these questions and defining your goals will help you develop research to get the answers you need.
Think about timing.
Even if you have already put in your applications for certain funds (such as IDEA), you can still go back and amend those applications and add to your current needs assessment. So don’t make the mistake of waiting until next year if you can do it now.
I have found that late winter and early spring can be an ideal time to conduct a mental health needs assessment. By that time of year, the problems have taken hold and people are frustrated and more likely to give you an honest response.
Start with focus groups.
Before developing questionnaires, I like to start with informal focus group conversations to help me learn more about what’s happening on the ground.
Bring in a variety of people to talk about their experiences related to student mental health, including teachers, child study team members, school nurse, administrators, parents, and students. If your assessment will cover the entire district, be sure to include people from each school and grade level.
This step will provide anecdotal evidence that helps you identify where to dig deeper to uncover mental health issues and their impact on student achievement, school safety, and school culture.
Gather the data you already have.
Here’s what you may not realize: you already have a great deal of data that can show the impact of student mental health issues.
Even before you start developing surveys, gather the following information, including how these numbers have changed over time:
- Academic performance/grades
- Disciplinary actions (numbers and severity)
- Students recommended for risk assessment
- Students on home instruction (and reasons)
- Students exhibiting chronic school avoidance
- Out of district placements
Perform a cost analysis.
A big question related to funding is, how much are student mental health problems costing your district? Consider these expenses for students suffering from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and school refusal:
- Tuition and transportation for students placed in out-of-district therapeutic schools
- Support for students on home instruction
- Risk assessments
Of course, there are additional impacts that are harder to quantify, such as the extra time teachers spend with struggling students, which is time they can’t spend with the rest of the class. And the burnout that happens when teachers are forced to deal with increasingly difficult students without training in mental health support strategies.
You can learn more about these impacts with your questionnaire.
Survey parents, teachers, and students.
Now that you know what you’re looking for, it’s time to develop and send surveys to all stakeholders, including parents, students, teachers, and staff members.
To ensure honest and trustworthy answers, the surveys should be anonymous. Most schools use digital survey tools such as Survey Monkey for quick and easy implementation.
NJ DOE has published a New Jersey School Climate Survey that can serve as a useful resource for developing survey questions. They also provide administrative info and Excel tools for compiling data that can save you significant time.
Document your findings.
Once you have compiled and analyzed the results from your surveys and focus group interviews, create a report that summarizes your key findings.
This information will serve as the foundation for program development and funding applications.
Need more help?
The fact is, every school district has its own unique population, challenges, and specific needs related to student mental health. However, we can all benefit from learning how other school districts have succeeded in implementing successful programs.
I have been through this process many times now: personally implementing student mental health programs in several districts, and mentoring at least a dozen more. If you have questions or need advice, I’m happy to help.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.