Student Well-Being

Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students’ Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago

By Arianna Prothero — May 09, 2024 4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Fewer than half of public schools—48 percent—report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs, and that number has dwindled in the past few years even as students’ needs have risen.

Those findings come from the most recent School Pulse survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, which polled 1,683 school leaders in March.

Today’s schoolchildren are dealing with a range of challenges that are impacting their mental health. Social media, the lingering effects of the pandemic, and the opioid crisis are often cited as major reasons.

For Chris Young, the principal of North Country Union High School, a campus of 720 students in Vermont, the ongoing opioid crisis has been a major challenge to his students’ mental health—and to his school’s ability to teach them.

“We live in a rural area that has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. So, we have been experiencing students with severe mental health needs in K through 12 for quite some time,” Young said. “There is significant housing instability, substance abuse, and food insecurity that students are experiencing and that obviously shows up in school.”

These mental health issues present themselves differently depending on the student’s age, he said. In elementary school, students tend to lash out and misbehave. In high school, they tend disengage, leading to chronic absenteeism. The pandemic, Young said, made what was already a tough situation in his community worse.

Fifty-eight percent of schools in the School Pulse survey said that the number of students who sought mental health services from their school increased a little or a lot compared with last year.

Schools face a number of challenges to meeting their students’ mental health needs, according to the School Pulse survey. One big one is a lack of mental health staff and funding—barriers that will likely grow for many schools as federal pandemic aid runs dry. Many schools used those federal funds to hire school counselors, social workers, and psychologists, and contract with outside providers.

Even so, 55 percent of schools in the survey reported they did not have enough mental health staff to manage students’ needs, 54 percent said they struggled with inadequate funding, and 49 percent said they couldn’t find enough licensed mental health professionals.

See also

Student walking down the stairs at her school.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

“We’ve always known that the responsibilities of schools go beyond academics, but these new data shine important light on the demands they face to support students who struggle with mental health issues,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr in a statement. “These challenges can be significant obstacles to student learning and well-being if not properly addressed.”

School counselors shoulder most of the burden

School counselors still shoulder most of the responsibility of providing mental health services to students on campus, with three-quarters of schools saying that counselors provide mental health services to students. That’s down 8 percent from last school year.

Despite challenges with staffing, nearly all schools surveyed said they provide some kind of mental health service for students, ranging from telehealth to outreach to making referrals to outside mental health professionals. On average, those schools report that 1 in 5 of their students have used these services.

In many cases, schools are leaning on teachers to help support students’ mental health. Sixty-three percent of schools said they offered professional development to train teachers to support students’ social-emotional and mental well-being.

Among schools that had made changes to their school calendars to support students’ mental health, such as designating time during the school day or giving students days off to focus on mental health, 67 percent have kept those changes.

Forty-four percent of schools said they created or expanded a program to support student social-emotional and mental well-being this year and 27 percent said they created new positions to support these efforts.

See also

Woman clutching knees next to prescription bottle: opioid crisis.

At North Country Union High School, Young has focused a lot of attention on social-emotional learning and mental well-being through events, activities, and guest speakers. Teachers also regularly set aside time to address SEL and mental well-being in their advisory periods, or homerooms, with students.

“We have a skit night, and the kids are making fun of how much we talk about mental health,” he said. “Which I think is great, we are beating them over the head with it.”

But, Young said, if the school doesn’t meet students’ mental health needs, then many students do not learn.

Young has also invested in hiring several additional mental health support staff. Two of those positions were paid for initially with federal pandemic aid, and his school will keep those positions permanently.

But hiring someone to support students’ mental well-being often comes with a tradeoff, said Young, and it’s tricky finding a balance between supporting students’ academics and mental health without sacrificing one for the other.

“That is a battle that is constantly playing out in my mind of: ‘Should I be advocating for more intervention teachers, who support students academically, or should I be advocating for another counselor?’” he said.


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.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
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.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

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 In Their Own Words These Students Found Mental Health Support in After-School Programs. See How
3 students discuss how after-school programs benefit their well-being.
6 min read
Vector illustration of a woman sitting indian style with her arms spread wide and a rainbow above her head.
Student Well-Being Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren't Enough
Middle schoolers' developmental stage makes them uniquely vulnerable to the negative aspects of cellphones. Policies alone won't help.
6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
A student holds a cellphone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
Student Well-Being Download How to Spot and Combat Student Apathy: A Teacher Resource
A guide to help teachers recognize and address apathy in the classroom.
1 min read
Student reading at a desk with their head on their hand.