As schools across the country kick off a new academic year, they’re also preparing to help children navigate a historic increase in mental health challenges.
It’s a demanding situation for districts that were already not meeting recommended student-to-counselor ratios before the pandemic intensified students’ mental health needs.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in May showed some improvement among adolescents and teenagers from earlier in the pandemic, at least in terms of the most severe mental health problems. Kids ages 12 to 17 visited hospital emergency departments for mental health conditions less often in the fall of 2022 than the previous fall.
But emergency department visits, particularly among girls, were still higher than they were before the pandemic. And the most recent available data still show that teens, and particularly girls and LGBTQ+ young people, reported record-high levels of sadness and hopelessness in 2021.
As for the improvements that have shown up in the available data, the CDC in May credited them in part to schools’ widespread increases in mental health supports, from providing more access to therapists and social workers to training teachers to support students with anxiety.
But most health and school leaders agree: There’s still a lot of work to do.
At a virtual event on Monday hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents’ Association, experts said the start of the new school year is an opportunity to set a tone of supporting and prioritizing students’ mental health.
Here are some of their tips.
Collect data about how students are doing
Students’ needs will vary greatly from community to community, so standard responses to overly broad generalizations—like simply adding another counselor to the staff without basing the decision on a specific, local need—likely won’t be particularly effective, participants said.
Schools should be administering routine surveys to gauge students’ well-being, said Tony Sanders, the state superintendent in Illinois. They should ask questions about things like students’ sense of belonging and whether they feel their teachers care about their feelings and goals.
But just collecting the data isn’t good enough, Sanders said.
School and district leaders must take the time to analyze the results and determine what services, programs, or other supports could make a difference.
“If you’re not collecting data on how your students are doing, you don’t really know how to address the concerns or problems that are happening in your schools,” he said.
Avoid ‘Band-Aid’ solutions
It can be tempting to invest in mental health programs that are “quick fixes” or have an immediate impact, said actress Goldie Hawn, who in 2003 started a foundation focused on children’s well-being. But any positive effects on students’ mental health rarely last or fundamentally change how students process and cope with difficult situations.
Taking a more intentional approach and investing in longer-term holistic solutions—like teaching them how to understand and regulate their emotions—will be more effective, Hawn said.
That’s not to say bringing in a therapy dog to visit a classroom isn’t helpful, she said. It can be, but it should be complemented by and reinforced with other efforts.
The Oscar winner was moved to support children’s mental health following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and founded the Goldie Hawn Foundation. It created educational programming called MindUP, aimed at helping students “develop the knowledge and tools they need to manage stress, regulate emotions, and face the challenges of the 21st century with optimism, resilience, and compassion,” the website says.
“These are serious issues, but we don’t want to Band-Aid things. We really want to create change that is systemic,” she said. “We need to teach [children] more about their brain to give them agency over their own emotions, to recognize what they’re feeling, and then they can understand the various techniques to calm down and make a better decision or take a better test.”
Collaborate with community partners
Schools don’t have to do all of this work on their own, said Gregg Behr, the executive director of the Grable Foundation, which helps schools in the Pittsburgh area find organizations to partner with to benefit children’s development.
Even if schools could magically hire all of the mental health professionals they feel they need, that wouldn’t be effective for every student. Some need more specialized support, and sometimes, that’s something schools simply cannot offer on their own. But they should still strive to meet each student’s individual needs, Behr said.
“We have a lot of community partnerships within our schools, within our states that we need to leverage to move this work forward,” he said. “So I would be asking local superintendents and principals, ‘What are you doing to bring in outside resources?’ ”
Anne Brown, president of the Cook Center for Human Connection, a youth suicide prevention organization, added that schools could even provide resources to help parents learn about children’s development and how to support their unique needs.
That could include free, online courses available on demand. Schools can place a “medallion” on their website’s homepage, which acts as a link to redirect visitors to those resources, she said.
“We work with the schools because that’s where the parents and the children are, but we know that there aren’t enough helps and supports in the schools themselves,” Brown said. “So by educating parents and helping them be the first line of support when they’re working with their children who are having anxiety, depression, or other needs … can really help those children so much more.”
Teachers can’t support students without someone supporting them, too
Dan Bridges, the superintendent in Naperville, Ill., said part of the work to help children is making sure the adults are cared for first.
There’s a lot of focus—rightfully so—on the trauma children experienced during the pandemic, he said, but people sometimes lose track of the fact adults experienced trauma, too. And it’s difficult for adults to be a strong support for a child if they don’t feel mentally well.
“We have to care for the heart and the soul of everybody that we serve,” he said.
Bridges said his district focuses on making sure staff members feel like they have a voice in decisionmaking and they feel heard when they give feedback, or ask for help. His district has also made sure to be responsive to current events and provide professional development opportunities when new concepts and problems arise, like when artificial intelligence tools surfaced or students came to school with more behavioral issues.
Treat every day as a new opportunity to help children
Asked if he had any advice for educators for the start of the school year, the Grable Foundation’s Behr encouraged them to “treat it as the first of 200 opportunities to create change and have a miracle day,” referring to the approximate number of days in the academic year.
“There are all sorts of ‘little bets’ that are doable every day,” he said, like having a community group bring in baby animals to assist with a lesson or using mindfulness breaks in math class. “Creating systems takes years to get right. … Tending to relationships is something we can do right now to bring out the potential, joy, and wonder of what’s possible.”
Hawn suggested that districts even consider asking students what would make a day a “miracle day” to them. Then, they’ll feel included and will be more likely to think their input matters.