Principals are on the frontlines of the mental health challenges that the nation’s children are facing.
Now, the National Association of Secondary School Principals has launched a two-pronged campaign: to raise awareness about the solutions principals are mounting in response to rising need, and to encourage principals to lobby for more funds to improve mental health services in schools.
“We’re dealing with issues like depression, addiction, drug prevention, mental illness, suicide, social media, school safety issues, and so much more,” Jennifer Silva, NASSP’s director of external relations, said this week during a webinar to an audience of mostly school leaders.
“These are not nice-to-have things,” said Ronn Nozoe, the organization’s chief executive officer. “These are not luxury-type things. These are essential services and supports that people need in order to just be the best versions of themselves.”
Pinpointing challenges and developing solutions
Aaron Eyler, who leads Matawan Regional High School in Matawan, N. J., said principals were in a unique position to spot concerns and see whether proposed solutions are working.
Some, he said, aren’t.
“We’re having a very difficult time making sure that we are able to assist students and maintain a safe environment for everybody,” he said. “I don’t want to make it seem like it is a doom-and-gloom situation that’s taking place within schools. It’s just a matter of the need and the urgency to address a lot of what young people are experiencing on a day-to-day basis.”
Bullying remains a big issue, exacerbated by the ubiquity of cell phones and social media, he said. It used to be easier for a student to disengage from a negative situation. Today, bullying can continue online and on social media, he said. Adults must help kids learn how to disconnect—and model that behavior themselves, he said.
“I really believe that one of the biggest obstacles that we have right now is trying to teach kids the ability to disconnect from the virtual world,” he said.
John Gies, the principal of Shelby High School in Shelby, Ohio, has been bringing mental health resources onto campus. His school has a partnership with a local agency that sends counselors to school, eliminating the need for students to get referrals. The school can also call a counselor during an emergency, removing wait times for students who are struggling.
Colleagues in nearby districts have told Gies that it can take up to six weeks for them to secure that kind of assistance for students, he said.
His school has also developed specialized support for a small group of students who are deemed at risk, who meet with a counselor once a week. And next year, Gies’ county will pay for 20 hours of counseling services for every school in the county, he said.
Around the state, he said, schools are trying to respond with the resources they have, including creating “Wellness Wednesdays” or carving out time in the regular school day for students to catch up on school work, participate in clubs and other activities, such as pep rallies or school assemblies. Some are bringing in animals to help calm students. All are aimed at boosting well-being and belonging.
Some districts are prioritizing equity, student involvement, and student voice as key components of their mental health strategy.
“We’re certainly willing and able to do a lot from [an] administrator’s point of view …, but when it comes from peers, I think it’s a lot more powerful,” said Chris Young, the principal of North County Union High School in Newport, Vermont. “They just see themselves in the work and are more willing to access it.”
His advice to school leaders? “Really, just to be there with them, as we’re doing this journey together.”
Centering student voice
The NASSP, which also oversees the National Honor Society and the National Student Council, has tried to live by that advice as it’s designed its awareness and advocacy campaign.
The association invited high school students to Virginia last year for a mental health summit to brainstorm solutions to challenges they were facing in their schools.
Jeremias Castillo, a high school senior in Newark who joined the webinar, stressed the importance of school leaders engaging parents in the mental health conversation. They must also ensure students knew about the mental health supports available on campus.
Castillo only found out his school had a social worker after his father died in 2021 while schools were still remote during the pandemic, he said.
But he was among the lucky ones. Even if he didn’t know about the resources at his school, they were available; some students attend schools without those supports, he said.
Part of de-stigmatizing mental health is reaching out to primary advocates—parents, he said.
“A lot of times, especially in households where there are low resources, there are other priorities,” he said. “But [that] should be a priority that’s brought up because you can’t give what you don’t have.”
Eyler, the New Jersey principal, agreed that principals and school leaders had an obligation to ensure that students knew about on-campus help. One way they can do so is treating those providing mental health on the level of administrators—sending an important signal.
“It says, ‘Wow, you know, the principal really listens to what these people have to say,’” Eyler says.
Weaving a web of support
The webinar also featured additional experts and resources for principals, from a variety of federal and national organizations.
Caren Howard, the director of policy and advocacy for Mental Health America, noted that nearly 40 percent of the people who use the organization’s online screening tools for conditions like for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or psychosis, are younger than 18, and that there’s often huge gap between when mental health symptoms present and when someone receives treatment. Signs of mental health problems show up in about 50 percent of people by the time they’re 14 years old, she said.
“Closing that gap means we need more mental health education in schools, more accommodations, and supports that precede services, such as peer support for mental health, sick days and grace periods for making up work, or taking tests virtually, depending on what a student’s individuals needs are,” Howard said.
Schools, she said, need qualified professionals to provide culturally responsive care to students to work with students. Black and Latino students are more likely to access mental health services when they’re provided at school because doing so removes barriers they may face in finding mental healthcare in the community, she said.
“We know that educators and school personnel are the first line of defense and are really carrying a strong load, and a heavy load, in helping to carry along our young people,” Howard said. “Sometimes the difference between a young person who has a mental health condition or an emotional disturbance,” and whether or not they have a mental health crisis, “is whether they have a caring adult in their life.”