Mental illness is on the rise in schools. As mental-health advocates fight to remove the stigma associated with mental illness, more clinical diagnoses are made. Twenty-five years ago, anxiety and depression were two illnesses barely discussed and rarely diagnosed. Now, they are flooding public school classrooms.
A survey conducted in February by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of teenagers identified mental health as a major issue among their peers—a number higher than bullying, drug addiction, or gangs. So with numbers that high, it should be assumed that public school funding would be prioritizing student mental health, but that’s not the case. In fact, too often, it’s our support staff who bears the weight of the financial crises facing public education.
I’ve spent 16 years as a teacher and educational leader. In that time, I’ve seen teaching go from a profession tasked with guiding children and young adults through academic curriculum to one of social and emotional teaching and learning. Twenty years ago, students were concerned with time management and quadratic equations; today they are overwhelmed by social media and stories of school violence.
Last month, the ALCU published an article called “Why School Psychologists Are Worried About the Mental Health of America’s Students.” In it, Angela Mann talks about school psychologists’ exhaustion and burnout due to high caseloads and understaffed schools. Data analysis from the U.S. Department of Education found a majority of public schools to be understaffed and unable to address the mental-health issues of its students.
The underfunding of mental health in schools
The underfunding of mental health in public schools is of concern. According to Mann, on average, school psychologists across the country have caseloads over 1,500 students on average; nearly half of schools report not even employing a school psychologist. Sadly too, Mann continues, the documented benefits of having mental-health personnel on staff is indisputable. School climate improves, discipline rates decrease, attendance increases, and graduation rates get much better too.
Unfortunately, the funding crisis shows no sign of letting up. In an August 2018 neaToday article, the authors identify funding as the first of 10 challenges faced by public education. In the decade since the Great Recession, many states are providing less funding to public education than they did before the crash. Schools are losing staff in droves. Districts, on average, spend approximately $11,000 per student every year, with the most economically disadvantaged school districts spending $1,200 less than that and districts with the highest number of students of color spending $2,000 less.
Related: How can educators support the parents of students with anxiety?
If public education cannot rely on the fiscal backing of state or federal government to prioritize student social and emotional learning, what are school districts expected to do?
3 cost-free ways districts can support mental health
1. Allow private counselors to meet with students during the school day.
When funding decreases, districts often cut support staff to meet the newly established budgetary constraints. Such cuts lead to the untenable caseloads of school psychologists described above. For many students, academic success will continue to be unattainable as long as their mental health is neglected.
Private counselors could be an easy solution to this problem if school districts would be willing to acknowledge the numerous benefits of making use of their services. Many private therapists cannot fill their schedules during the day. Clients with full-time jobs cannot meet during work hours and parents of student patients are unwilling to pull students from school.