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3 no-cost ways to support mental health in schools

70% of teens identified mental health as a major issue among their peers; here are some ways districts can help

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.

If school districts allowed private therapists to meet with students at school during the day, it would fill clinician’s schedules and come at no cost to the district; the clinicians would bill the students’ insurance for payment. Licensed therapists are already CORIed, so legality of their ability to work with students in the school is already established. Additionally, students would only miss 30 to 45 minutes of class once a week. The schools would simply need to provide the clinicians with a private space to meet with students. This type of system is not much different than allowing probation officers to meet with students at school, and it could solve funding gaps while not sacrificing mental health.

2. Bring mental health programming and advocates into the schools.

Historically, schools have prioritized outside programming centered on substance abuse. Examples include D.A.R.E. and speakers like Chris Herren. Although students must be informed about substance abuse, schools fail to prioritize the underlying factors that can so easily lead to drug use: mental illness. If districts don’t tackle the cause of the abuse, students will never be educated about coping mechanisms and skills to handle the anxiety and depression they feel.

We must teach students different—more effective—outlets for their emotional wellness. Whether schools invite individual mental-health advocates in to share personal success stories or develop school-based programming and initiatives on mental illness, any teaching and learning time spent on social and emotional wellness will positively impact students suffering from mental illness and allow for academic success.

3. Schedule flex blocks for students.

The speed of the 21st century has young adults taking on more and sleeping much less. Not only does stress exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety and depression, so, too, does sleep deprivation and hunger. Students nowadays are overscheduled. They move bell-to-bell during the day, only to be dismissed to a world full of homework, extracurriculars, and (depending on age) jobs, driving lessons, college applications, and babysitting.

Related: Why students’ emotional well-being in school is tied to their success

Giving students the opportunity to schedule their own time and check items off the “to-do” list is invaluable. Flex time can be used to engage in non-curriculum seminars and counseling without missing work in academic classes. In schools where I have seen this implemented successfully, students engage in a wide range of activities including group therapy, organizational-skills sessions, and Italian cooking classes.

Districts face many different issues and mandates; it seems like every initiative is an important one. But with the current monetary shortfalls being felt by so many districts, not all initiatives can be prioritized. Mental health is more than just an initiative—it’s a necessity. For students suffering from anxiety and depression or any other mental illness, academic success will be unattainable if their mental health isn’t addressed. Districts must find alternative ways to deal with mental illness and promote social and emotional wellness. Simply ignoring the issue because of the decrease in funding will not make the problem go away.

Over a decade into my career, I am less a teacher of academic skills and more a teacher of life skills. On any given day, I spend more than 75 percent of my time counseling students about social and emotional wellness, and less than 25 percent on academic guidance and postsecondary plans. The connections I made with my students 16 years ago are no longer adequate; there has been a huge shift in the teaching and learning priorities of the 21st century.

If we continue to persist with the status quo, in the very near future, we may easily face more than 70 percent of students reporting mental illness as a major issue among peers. Change is frightening and inherently risky, but what’s more risky is allowing mental illness in our schools to go unchecked. As the challenges faced by our young adults get increasingly more social and emotional, school districts must shift their priorities, regardless of the budgetary constraints they may be up against.

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