Student Well-Being From Our Research Center

Experts Recommend Mental Health Screenings for Students. Most Schools Aren’t Doing Them

By Libby Stanford — January 04, 2024 6 min read
Illustration of a woman standing in front of a scale measurement for emotional wellness.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

School psychologists and counselors say screening students for signs of poor mental health is one of the best strategies schools can use to support students, but most districts aren’t doing it, according to a new survey from the EdWeek Research Center.

Youth mental health has become a top policy priority for school, district, state, and federal leaders over the past few years as young people struggle with record-high rates of depression and anxiety following the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated a trend of worsening adolescent mental health that had been underway for about a decade beforehand.

Many districts have responded by hiring more school psychologists and counselors where they can and partnering with outside mental health providers to increase access to care.

See Also

Illustration of a large gauge showing sad, smiling, and happy emoji faces with a person in each of the three sections and a female character holding an arrow that is pointing to the smiley face in the center.
iStock/Getty

But districts have been slower to adopt screenings, despite it being a strategy recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Center for School Mental Health, and psychologists and mental health researchers.

In the EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted Nov. 30 through Dec. 6, 2023, 68 percent of principals and district leaders said their district does not use universal mental health screenings. Twenty-two percent said their district conducted the screenings in certain grade levels, and 10 percent used screeners in every grade level.

The survey included responses from a nationally representative sample of 266 district leaders and 160 school leaders.

Colorado, Illinois, and New Jersey are the only states with laws that provide funding and resources for schools to implement mental health screenings, despite significant interest in supporting youth mental health among politicians across the political spectrum.

Concerns about parent consent and resources often stand in the way of bills aiming to provide support for mental health screenings. Last spring, lawmakers in Colorado passed a law that creates a mental health screening program for students in 6th through 12th grades despite opposition from parents’ rights advocates, who argued the screenings allow schools to overstep their bounds.

In Montana, a similar bill failed in the state legislature in February 2023 after lawmakers argued other screening tools—such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s biennial Youth Risk Behavioral Health Survey, which gives an anonymous snapshot of student needs—are sufficient. The mental health screeners that districts use provide information specific to individual students, so educators can alert parents and mental health professionals if a student needs more care.

District and school leaders who use the screenings say they’ve been helpful both in identifying specific students who need extra support and determining which mental health services schools should offer.

How districts use screenings

The screeners, which ask students a series of questions about their emotions and feelings, identify signs of depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges among students. They’re not meant to be a diagnostic tool, but the first step in providing extra support or care to students who need it.

In the survey, 73 percent of district leaders and principals who said their districts use mental health screeners said the tools help them identify students who need assistance so a mental health professional can speak to them.

And 66 percent said they use the screeners to inform parents when their child might need help and refer them to a mental health professional.

Nearly half of the district and school leaders, 46 percent, said the screenings help their schools determine which mental health services they should offer on campus, and 43 percent said they help school leaders make choices about programs and curriculum, such as social-emotional learning.

Parental consent is sometimes a concern

Opponents of universal mental health screenings often argue that schools don’t adequately obtain parental permission before administering them.

In Colorado, parental consent was the crux of the debate over the state law creating the statewide screening program, which Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed in June. The law requires that participating schools use a passive parental consent model, through which schools inform parents of the screening before it happens so they can opt out of having their child screened. Opponents said that wasn’t sufficient for ensuring schools had parents’ consent.

In the EdWeek Research Center survey, 71 percent of leaders in districts that conduct screenings use a passive, opt-out model for consent. Fifteen percent said their districts use an opt-in model, through which the districts inform parents about the screenings and require them to actively provide permission before their children can participate.

Mental health experts have told Education Week that the opt-out model often allows for more students to be screened. Many parents may not see the notice about the screening or meet the deadline to provide consent, meaning their students would not have the chance to participate.

Eleven percent of the leaders in districts that screen students said they don’t inform parents before administering the screenings.

Questions about gender identity and sexuality

Schools have also heard from parents with concerns about questions in mental health screeners that ask students about their gender identity and sexuality. Such questions are used to help schools determine whether LGBTQ+ students might be more likely to have mental health challenges and need more resources to address them.

In 2021, the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that LGBTQ+ students are more likely than their peers to experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and seriously consider suicide. LGBTQ+ students also struggle to access mental health care, according to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth.

Despite these factors, 70 percent of leaders in districts that use mental health screeners said they have never asked about students’ gender identity and sexuality, while 19 percent said they ask about students’ gender identity and sexuality at certain grade levels, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey. Twelve percent of leaders from districts that conduct mental health screenings said they used to ask about gender identity and sexuality but don’t any longer.

None of the district and school leaders whose districts conduct mental health screenings said the screeners they use ask students of all age levels, from the youngest students to the oldest, about their gender identity and sexuality.

The top concern with asking about students’ gender identity and sexuality was their privacy. Fifty percent of district and school leaders whose districts use mental health screenings labeled that as a reason why they don’t ask those questions in the screening tool.

However, adult reactions to the questions are another common motivating factor. District and school leaders identified concerns—or potential concerns—from parents, community members, school employees, or elected officials as a reason they don’t ask about gender identity and sexuality, with 19 percent of leaders specifically identifying parent concerns.

Some school and district leaders also said that the questions wouldn’t be developmentally appropriate and that they would have no way to use or respond to information about students’ gender identity and sexuality.

education week logo subbrand logo RC RGB

Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2024 edition of Education Week as Experts Recommend Mental Health Screenings For Students. Most Schools Aren’t Doing Them

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Nobody Wants to Look Stupid: Resources for Teaching About Executive Functions
Executive functioning is a learned skill, explains an educational therapist. Here’s how to teach it to your students—and yourself.
Lexi Peterson
4 min read
Little girl inside head of woman papercut vector illustration. Psychology, inner child, human individuality and memory of childhood healing concept
iStock/Getty Images
Student Well-Being Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Teens’ Tobacco and Nicotine Use?
Answer these seven questions about students’ nicotine and tobacco habits.
1 min read
A high school principal displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Massachusetts on April 10, 2018.
A high school principal displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Massachusetts on April 10, 2018.
Steven Senne/AP
Student Well-Being Q&A A Superintendent Explains Why Her District Is Suing Social Media Companies
Student mental health and behavioral issues have become a major drain on district resources as social media use has risen.
3 min read
Teenage girl looking at smart phone
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion When Students Feel Unlucky, Teachers Can Help Change That Attitude
Mindsets matter when it comes to thinking about opportunity. Here’s what new research finds.
Paul A. O'Keefe
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty