Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being

Students With Depression, Anxiety May Qualify for Accommodations, Feds Tell Schools

By Evie Blad — October 13, 2021 3 min read
Student writes a note for "HELP" on her schoolwork
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As the pandemic continues to fuel concerns about children’s mental health, schools should be aware that students with conditions like depression and anxiety may qualify for accommodations under federal law, the Biden administration said Wednesday.

“Students with mental health disabilities are protected by Federal civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,” said a new fact sheet from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. “These laws require K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions to provide students with an equal opportunity to learn, free from discrimination, including during public health crises.”

Ongoing disruption and social isolation sparked by COVID-19 precautions have led to concern about mental health in general. And federal officials have encouraged schools to target federal relief aid to students’ mental health and emotional well-being in addition to the academic recovery.

The new guidance, released in honor of World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, specifically says schools must provide “reasonable modifications to school policies, practices, and procedures, as appropriate for an individual student.” Failure to do so could amount to “discrimination based on disability,” which could lead to a federal civil rights investigation, the fact sheet says.

Schools face challenges with mental health efforts

The instruction comes as schools struggle to meet students’ mental health needs. Groups like the National Association of School Psychologists said schools already had inadequate numbers of support staff like psychologists, social workers, and school counselors before the pandemic.

Even with new funding, school administrators must confront a staffing crunch that has affected all sectors of the economy and has made it difficult to recruit staff in all areas of the school, including teachers and bus drivers. In a recent survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 19 percent of responding district leaders and principals said they had difficulty hiring new mental health counselors.

School psychologists who help address student mental health concerns must also tackle a backlog of special education evaluations to determine which students are dealing with expected academic challenges posed by interrupted learning time and which may have unaddressed disabilities.

But mental health disabilities may also call for individual plans to accommodate students’ needs, the new fact sheet says. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, schools are required to provide a free and adequate public education to students with disabilities. In the case of conditions like diagnosed depression, schools might consider “reasonable modifications” to policies related to things like attendance for individual students, the agencies said.

Schools should also train staff to recognize and respond to signs of suicidal ideation and “develop trauma-informed crisis management procedures that include an individualized assessment of the student’s circumstances,” they urged.

The document details several hypothetical situations that might prompt a federal investigation from the Education Department’s office for civil rights. They include an example of a parent who reports that their student has developed severe depression for the first time during the pandemic.

“Despite the school’s Section 504 [free and adequate public education] obligation to evaluate any student who needs or is believed to need special education or related services because of a disability, the principal does not refer the student for evaluation,” the fact sheet says. “Instead, the principal says that all students are struggling because of the pandemic and suggests that the parent should hire a private tutor and find a psychologist for the student.”

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg wrote in a letter to educators accompanying the guidance, “Importantly, these Federal disability-rights laws require that when students with mental health disabilities need help or are in crisis, schools and postsecondary institutions make decisions about how to respond based on each student’s individual circumstances, rather than on myths, fears, or stereotypes about people with mental illness.”


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
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.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Roundtable Webinar: Why We Created a Portrait of a Graduate
Hear from three K-12 leaders for insights into their school’s Portrait of a Graduate and learn how to create your own.
Content provided by Otus

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 Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty