We are leading a national conversation about the importance of “prevention” versus “treatment” of health and well-being of our youth, families, and society. It is critical, in our view, that all 50 state governors and chief state school officers relay to students, parents, health care professionals, and teachers the interconnectedness among mental health and well-being to their success in school and in life.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015) is helping to make headway in prevention with provisions for whole student development and well-being as a part of the definition of “achievement or student success” and alternative measures.
We are proud to have influenced the new ESSA requirements and provisions through our research, publishing, consulting to the United States Department of Education, and advocacy work.
The ESSA covers many preventative well-being measures, including safe and supportive schools, relationship-building skills, trauma-informed classroom management, and school readiness and academic success
Treatment is not prevention
While interventions and treatment options are important, we must strengthen proven prevention strategies. As a part of an integrated, inter-agency, broad spectrum approach to addressing this issue, mental health prevention requires school-based models and teaching, learning, counseling best practices that empower young people to take control of their own well-being.
Most state’s Departments of Education are not prepared to offer holistic supports and services to local school districts, therefore, we recommend that each state governor’s office provide this multi-agency leadership and coordination.
We have found that within most Departments of Education the functional responsibilities for student well-being—school climate assessments, safe and supportive schools, Every Student Succeeds Act accountability measures, mental health needs, expanding holistic measures of student success, and the social-emotional learning supports—are not coordinated in such a manner to impact the health and well-being of children in local school districts. Even in forward-thinking states such as California, where they are offering social-emotional learning (SEL) practices to 18 school districts as a pilot, they are using a common SEL framework that focuses on improving academic and behavior outcomes, and not health and well-being outcomes as is needed.
Mental health prevention requires multi-tiered, school-based models of teaching, learning, and counseling best practices that empower students to take control of their own well-being, and that reach 100 percent of students. School leaders can equip front-line classroom teachers and counselors with research-based, breakthrough methods, while informing school board members, parents, and their community about acute mental health needs.
Mental health prevention is not a wide spread screening process for depression or comorbidity diagnosis, as is the common misconception among school superintendents and psychologists. When students progress to screenings they are already in the intervention and treatment phases of support.
School well-being needs assessment
Schools are ideally suited to offer student development programs that consider the whole child, and ESSA requires that they actually be measured on how they do. There are multiple goals of programs designed to promote positive youth development: promote bonding; foster resilience; promote social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and moral competence; foster self-determination, spirituality, self-efficacy, clear and positive identity, belief in the future and prosocial norms; construct a healthy and positive self-understanding, and provide recognition for positive behavior and prosocial involvement. A school well-being needs assessment is fairly straight forward process, and should be performed by every school district, and every school. The Delaware Department of Education has prepared a thorough process and document which may be helpful to guide your efforts.
Leadership is needed to meet new ESSA accountability regulations and district stakeholder expectations and needs for health and well-being services and supports. It is critical to include schools and school-based mental health programs as a key component part of an integrated prevention strategy in all 50 States.
Let’s work together to close the prevention-treatment gap, and in particular imparting important protective factors to our children.
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