Student Well-Being

How 3 Districts Are Bolstering Their School-Based Mental Health Services

By Lauraine Langreo — February 22, 2023 4 min read
Mental health professional taking notes with pen and notepad while listening to a young girl.
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Students are struggling with their mental health, but many school districts are ill-equipped to meet those needs.

The most recent Youth Risk Behavior survey results from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, in 2021, 42 percent of high school students said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year.

Meanwhile, more than 5.4 million public school students attend districts with no psychologists, and almost half a million students attend districts with no school counselors, according to an Education Week analysis of federal data. And only a small percentage of districts meet the recommended ratios of school psychologists to students and school counselors to students.

To increase access to school-based mental health services and to strengthen the pipeline of mental health professionals in schools, the U.S. Department of Education is doling out $1 billion to school districts, universities, and state education agencies over the next five years.

The School-Based Mental Health Services Grant Program and the Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant Program is funded through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in June 2022.

Here’s how three districts are using the money:

Tacoma Public Schools, Wash.

The rates of anxiety and depression in Tacoma students are “sky high,” according to its 2021 Healthy Youth Survey results, said Laura Allen, the director of the Whole Child Initiative for Tacoma Public Schools in Washington state.

In the 29,000-student district, every school has a counselor and some have social workers, and those counselors “do their best to run small groups, and some one-on-one counseling—but that’s not therapy,” Allen said.

For students who need help beyond what counselors can offer, the district has partnered with local mental health providers who come to school buildings to meet with students. The $6 million that the school system will receive over the course of five years from the School-Based Mental Health Services Grant will primarily fund those partnerships; it will pay for hiring and retaining staff; for ensuring there are private spaces in schools to meet with students; and for staying in contact with students and parents, among other services.

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Statuettes of meditating monkeys sit on a table at Venado Middle School's Well Space in Irvine, Calif., on July 28, 2022. Districts across the country are using federal pandemic money to hire more mental health specialists, rolling out new coping tools and expanding curriculum that prioritizes emotional health.
Statuettes of meditating monkeys sit on a table at Venado Middle School's Well Space in Irvine, Calif. Some districts now hire administrators to coordinate their wellness options.
Eugene Garcia/AP

Tacoma used COVID-relief funds to start these partnerships with local mental health providers and is using this new grant to continue the program because of the demand from students and parents, Allen said. It’s good that the “stigma around mental health and support has dissipated,” she added.

When the five years are up, “we’ll have to be creative and work as a community [to find funding for these partnerships],” Allen said. “This [grant] buys us a little more time to build that structure and the sustainability, but we haven’t identified the funding source at this time.”

Guilford County Schools, N.C.

Since becoming the superintendent of Guilford County Schools in September, Whitney Oakley has met with thousands of people in her community, and no matter what group she’s talking to, “mental health continues to come up at the top of the list of priorities,” she said.

In the 68,000-student district, there isn’t a full-time trained school psychologist or social worker at each school, Oakley said. And the district is far from meeting the recommended ratios for those school-based health care providers, she added.

Over the next five years, Guilford schools will receive $14.8 million from the School-Based Mental Health Services Grant. It’ll be used for expanding on-demand mental health services at 61 schools and will fund 16 new full-time mental health clinician positions. The money will also fund partnerships with local universities to create a talent pool of qualified candidates to fill positions at schools across the district. This is also a continuation of efforts the district started with COVID relief money.

“Those positions will help us improve the ratio but won’t get us to where we need to be,” Oakley said. The grant is “a step in the right direction,” as she and the district continue to advocate at the state and federal level for long-term funding for strategies that are working, she added.

Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Public Schools will receive $15 million over the next five years to fund its “grow-your-own” program for school counselors, social workers, and psychologists, and its retention program for existing providers, according to Christine Judson, the director of talent acquisition and federal project director for the district.

The 323,000-student district will partner with universities to provide internship and externship programs to candidates who are near graduation or completing their certification. The interns will do their clinical hours in Chicago schools under the supervision of trained clinical health providers. This ensures that when they are hired full-time they’re already familiar with the schools, staff, and students in the district, Judson said.

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Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty

Some of the district’s retention strategies will include paying those who mentor internship or externship students, as well as providing space for them to facilitate professional development.

“These are the kinds of programs that go a really long way to helping ensure students are getting the services that they need, when they need them, from adults in their building who know them and know their context,” Judson said.

The district used these strategies for doubling the number of school nurses in 2019 and “we anticipate that we’ll have really large returns in these three new clinician groups with this 2023 grant,” she added.

In the long-term, Judson said she hopes that demonstrating the effectiveness of this program will “make the case” to reallocate local dollars in ways that are “most impactful from a recruitment and retention standpoint.”

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