Alarms are sounding with increased frequency demanding action to address a looming mental health crisis among our youth. There has been plenty of talk about it, but what action should we take?
Start with baseline data. Look at what research has already been done. Remember that most young people are healthy, but one in five may have a mental disorder at some point. So we start with the positive and continue to support the emotional, psychological, and social well-being of all youth.
Learn to distinguish normal fluctuations in mood and behavior and understand how mentally healthy children and teens should be expected to act.
How schools can help
The pandemic exacerbated the shortage of mental health professionals in schools. Estimates based on principal surveys show that 70% percent of schools do not have enough mental health professionals. While federal emergency funds may help hire more in the short run, schools will have to pick up the costs when the grants run out. The shortage of experienced and well-trained mental health professionals available to hire remains a challenge, especially in low-income urban communities.
School leaders need to find alternate solutions to address their needs. Back to the baseline data. A simple mental health screener administered to all students is one way to identify students who may need support for anxiety and depression, the most common issues among teens.
All school personnel should have some training in youth mental health awareness, and it should be offered to parents as well. They need to understand that children’s mental health affects academic success, learn how to recognize signs of distress, and know what to do if they believe a child is struggling.
Teachers do not need to be trained counselors to teach wellness skills like resiliency, problem-solving, and coping techniques. Many classes have regular morning meetings as part of the daily routine to talk about feelings and practice those skills. That simple step can help destigmatize mental health issues and make it feel safe for children and teens to share their feelings.
The U.S. Department of Education recently released a guide for Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs. Along with recognizing challenges schools and communities are facing, the guide offers a list of recommendations.
1. Prioritize Wellness for Each and Every Child, Student, Educator, and Provider
2. Enhance Mental Health Literacy and Reduce Stigma and Other Barriers to Access
3. Implement Continuum of Evidence-Based Prevention Practices
4. Establish an Integrated Framework of Educational, Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Health Support
5. Leverage Policy and Funding
6. Enhance Workforce Capacity
7. Use Data for Decision Making to Promote Equitable Implementation and Outcomes
In addition, the U.S. Surgeon General has published an Advisory Report on Protecting Youth Mental Health. It offers advice and suggestions for families, schools, communities, and other groups.
- Create positive, safe, and affirming school environments.
- Expand social and emotional learning programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development.
- Learn how to recognize signs of changes in mental and physical health among students, including trauma and behavior changes. Take appropriate action when needed.
- Provide a continuum of supports to meet student mental health needs, including evidence-based prevention practices and trauma-informed mental health care.
- Expand the school-based mental health workforce.
- Support the mental health of all school personnel.
- Promote enrolling and retaining eligible children in Medicaid, CHIP, or a Marketplace plan, so that children have health coverage that includes behavioral health services.
- Protect and prioritize students with higher needs and those at higher risk of mental health challenges.
Wondering how to accomplish these goals? Take a look at the Advisory Report on Protecting Youth Mental Health. It provides details and suggestions.
Helpful websites and articles
Having too much information can seem overwhelming. I get it. But a little bit goes a long way.
If you haven’t already clicked some of the links above, pick one of these to review. The more you know, the more you can create positive change for your school community!
A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K-12) was created as a resource for educators who want to know how to get started and what steps to take to create a suicide prevention plan that will work for their schools and districts. It is written from my perspective as a school principal and survivor of suicide loss, not an expert in psychology or counseling. I hope that any teacher, school counselor, psychologist, principal, or district administrator can pick up this book, flip to a chapter, and easily find helpful answers to the questions they are likely to have about what schools can do to prevent suicide.