Student mental health has been the focus of a sustained wave of attention caused by the unprecedented disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, building on years of concern from educators, who have long worried about escalating rates of depression, anxiety, and isolation among their students.
Warnings of a snowballing crisis from teachers and administrators pop up in unrelated interviews about everything from budgets to COVID-19 protocols.
They tell me of tracing cases of chronic absenteeism back to untreated depression, of students who’ve been flagged for defiant behavior sparked by years of trauma at home, of children who don’t feel safe sitting with new people at lunch because the last two and a half years have robbed them of crucial moments of social development.
This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.
Addressing those issues requires urgent action by schools. To do that work well, schools need to see a sustained focus on student mental health from lawmakers.
For too long, many lawmakers have reduced mental health to a blame-game talking point after tragic school shootings. They’ve quickly passed bills to hire more school counselors and add security cameras to school hallways. But that attention rarely lasts long enough to see whether those programs did enough to address the systemic issues that have hampered schools’ efforts to support students.
The response to COVID-19, and the aftermath of another school shooting, have created a window for action, educators and advocates for school mental health say. After the May 24 tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a legislative package that includes $2 billion in grant funding to address such long-standing problems as a lack of school social workers and psychologists and measures that can help schools cut the red tape for using Medicaid to pay for mental health treatments.
But state and federal lawmakers need to provide longer-term funding to ensure promising solutions can last beyond the lifespan of time-limited grants, and they need to ensure that future legislation isn’t too narrowly focused on preventing violence, advocates say. And, as a growing political movement casts a skeptical eye on how schools discuss topics like race and sexuality, lawmakers need to be sure they aren’t lending a platform to counterproductive messages that undermine schools’ efforts around mental health and emotional well-being, those advocates say.
Schools need more mental health support staff
Beginning in 2020, schools received an unprecedented surge of funds through the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act that could be used to pay for new counselors, psychologists, and social workers, but many still struggle to fill those positions. After years of underfunding, some colleges have folded their school psychologist programs, and some would-be graduates have decided to pursue other, better paying fields, said Nicole Skaar, a professor of school psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, where she leads a “grow your own” effort to train school psychologists in rural communities.
Her son’s own rural Iowa school district has not spent money it received through a state mental health grant because it has not been able to recruit a social worker to fill a newly created position.
Schools around the country have faced shortages of student-support personnel like counselors for years, a problem that’s even more notable now as they chart a course for pandemic recovery. Nearly 40 percent of all school districts nationally, enrolling 5.4 million students, did not have a school psychologist in the first full year of the pandemic, according to an Education Week analysis in March. Just 8 percent of districts met the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of 1 school psychologist to 500 students. Only 14 percent met the ratio of 1 school counselor to 250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act will provide $1 billion in grants to two programs that allow schools and universities to pilot new ways of recruiting and training school counselors, psychologists, and social workers. When those grants expire, state lawmakers can provide funding to continue—and even expand—successful solutions, Skaar said.
Skaar’s program uses one of the grants to provide a school-psychology-degree program to midcareer special education teachers, principals, and school counselors, allowing them to learn remotely from the communities where they will eventually serve. The program just graduated its first cohort of four new school psychologists, who will serve multiple rural districts in western Iowa. A second and final cohort will add five more.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act also includes measures that could help states adjust their Medicaid programs to make it easier for schools to bill for students’ mental health services. If states make those changes, it could help schools provide clinical care to students who need it most, said Sarah Broome, a former school administrator and consultant to schools on Medicaid. And it could open up a crucial stream of money they can rely on to fund mental health services in the long term after COVID-19-relief aid runs out, she said.
Efforts must address mental health without creating a stigma
Because conversations about student mental health are often sparked by school shootings, they are often dominated by concerns about identifying and responding to students who intend to harm themselves or others. That’s an important purpose of this work, but it’s not the only goal.
After the Parkland school shooting in Florida, for example, an education wonk posed a question on Twitter: Could dogs be trained to identify kids in mental health distress? Including potential school shooters?
Such framing seems to suggest that students are almost predestined to act violently, and it puts the focus on isolating potentially dangerous individuals, rather than supporting all students who need help. Policymakers should widen their lens when they pass future legislation to build on the Safer Communities Act, educators told me. And legislators should also be mindful that the way they discuss these issues shapes the public conversation—often with very real consequences for students, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of School Psychologists.
For too long, many lawmakers have reduced mental health to a blame-game talking point after tragic school shootings.
Framing mental health work as a tool to isolate “those kids” who pose a threat contributes to a stigma that may stop students from seeking needed help. A November 2019 U.S. Secret Service analysis of mass school shootings found that attackers often have a history of suicidality or mental health concerns, but those factors aren’t unusual enough to form a predictive profile. In other words, many, many students need schools to connect them to treatment for depression or anxiety, whether or not those children have violent intentions.
For schools—and policymakers—it’s about more than just providing direct services
Beyond providing direct counseling for students with specific mental health diagnoses, educational psychologists say schools should create conditions that support students’ emotional well-being and learning. Advocates for social-emotional learning argue that it’s not really possible for schools to be neutral in this area; their choices shape students, whether or not they intend to. SEL is a strategy of being intentional about things like greeting students, navigating classroom conversations, and helping children develop skills like identifying and managing emotions and empathizing with their peers.
But some of the same lawmakers who raise concerns about mental health and student well-being after shootings have stood by while political activists attack those strategies.
As the Republican governor of Florida, for example, Rick Scott signed a law that created a commission to interrogate the circumstances beyond the 2018 Parkland school shooting. That group, and the federal school safety commission assembled by then-President Donald Trump, both recommended that schools should be required to adopt social-emotional learning programs.
Cut to 2022. Now U.S. Sen. Scott of Florida and former Trump Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who chaired the federal commission, appear at a July conference organized by a conservative activist group, where speakers tell the crowd that school-based mental health programs were “another form of indoctrination” and criticized social-emotional learning as a tool for pushing “critical race theory.”
School districts around the country are experiencing the effects of such messages.
In a June EdWeek Research Center survey of almost 1,900 teachers, principals, and district administrators, 47 percent of respondents somewhat or completely agreed with the statement: “In the last year, my district or school has faced increased scrutiny or political pushback to efforts related to addressing student mental health and emotional well-being.” In more-recent interviews about the emotional effects of the pandemic on students, some principals have even begun to shy away from using the term “social-emotional learning.”
Politicians who are concerned about students have a responsibility to recognize the downstream effects of political messages and to help constituents sort out legitimate concerns about school programs from scare tactics that could hinder that work, educators say.
On the other hand, schools and districts have a responsibility to explain how such approaches as SEL can actually help students, to include parents in their strategies, to ensure their programs are grounded in evidence, and to answer critical questions about how they spend public money.
The lack of community mental health supports has a spillover effect
Schools are integral to children’s healthy development—not just academically but as whole people with healthy emotions, habits, and relationships. And those things are all intertwined.
Some policymakers say asking schools to support students’ mental health is asking them to do too much. But many educators say they have no choice: The effects of a lack of mental health supports in communities spill over into schools, manifesting in behavior problems, stalled academic progress, and unprocessed trauma.
Many students’ mental health diagnoses are first identified in schools, and schools are often where students are first connected to treatment. If policymakers insist it’s not schools’ job to address these concerns, they need to do a lot more to connect families to needed resources and treatments in their communities. In the absence of such action, schools need more support to shoulder this important responsibility.
That means mental health can’t be reduced to a trump card politicians pull out to win arguments about the roots of gun violence or whether remote learning was a wise strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The conversations around COVID-19’s effects on mental health, and the legislation that followed, were a good starting point, advocates say. But lawmakers should continue that work in the future by looking for additional opportunities for funding, supporting, and expanding successful strategies, and being consistent in their support for schools’ work in this area.
Educators say those politicians must move beyond rhetoric or seeking single-bill, silver-bullet solutions to the deliberate work it will take to help students recover from years of interruptions, to realize their potential in the classroom, and, yes, to create safer schools in the process.
The need is urgent, and it will remain so long after the headlines fade.
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2023 edition of Education Week as We Talk a Lot About Student Mental Health. We Need More Action