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What are School Mental Health Programs, and Why Are They Important?

  • September 19, 2022
  • Children and Youth, Treatment

As children and adolescents returned to school this fall, they did so in what the Surgeon General has labeled a crisis in mental health. Even before the pandemic, around one in five children had a mental health disorder. Meanwhile, nearly 50 million children attend public schools across the nation. About half of those schools perform mental health screenings, and 42% provide mental health services. States across the nation have recently passed laws to ensure more provision of these services in schools.

school counseling group

Some recent news coverage has revolved around parental and community protests of mental health programming in schools. However, according to a recent APA poll, the majority of American adults support it:

  • 86% of Americans believe that students should be educated about mental health.
  • 87% of Americans agree that it was important for school staff to participate in mental health trainings.
  • 72% of Americans would want a school staff member to, with parental consent, refer their child to a mental health/support service team if they noticed signs of a potential issue.
school counselor with student

While the majority of Americans believed that their schools employed staff (either a nurse (63%) or a guidance counselor (68%)) available to help with student mental health, they were less likely to say the school employed a social worker (31%), psychologist (23%) or psychiatrist (13%).

What School Mental Health Programs Actually Entail

According to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, public schools are most likely to offer individual-based interventions (such as seeing a social worker or guidance counselor), case management or coordinating services, or referrals for care outside of the school. Since the pandemic, almost 75% of schools had offered a mental health training, but it’s unclear what kind and of what quality. Meanwhile, “Only one-third (34%) of schools provide outreach services, which includes mental health screenings for all students.”

Mental health programming in schools can also include student education and outreach to families. Schools are a touchpoint in children’s lives, so they can offer a venue for discussions of mental health and education about it. Most school districts that don’t have mental health programming cite a lack of funding or inadequate access to mental health professionals as the main reason, rather than a lack of parental or community support. Often these differences in resources result from historical inequities.

school counselor with teen student

Providing evidence-based, high-quality mental health programing in schools and ensuring equitable access to these resources can help children and families navigate many of the complicated issues facing them this fall.

More Resources on Children’s Mental Health & Schools

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