The U.S. Surgeon General has issued an advisory warning about a mental health crisis for children. Several national health organizations have also declared a national state of emergency for child and adolescent mental health resulting from prolonged stress, instability, and isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is old news for most of our educators, who once again find themselves as the baseline support system we rely on to fulfill the basic needs of our nation’s youth.
“When students returned to classrooms in August this year, we saw higher levels of stress and anxiety,” said Patrick Brady, Superintendent at the Massena Central School District in New York. “Addressing mental health concerns has become a number one priority in our district.”
On top of hiring more counselors and mental health professionals, Mr. Brady’s district introduced a new member of its team: Raider. Named after their mascot, Raider is a chatbot that helps the district check in on families and students at scale via mobile messaging, answering families’ questions around the clock, guiding them to resources, and escalating concerns to school staff when needed.
We’ve grown accustomed to using chatbots and voice assistants in our interactions with most businesses, but the world of education has been slow to adopt them, especially in K-12. That’s changing. The pandemic heightened the need for scalable, virtual communication, and we’re starting to see the potential use cases grow, including for mental health support.
Meeting the immediate demand for mental health resources
Increased federal relief funding for mental health under Title IV and the American Rescue Plan means that schools have money to spend. A national study by the Rand Corporation over the summer found that three quarters of school district leaders said they wanted to add or had already added mental health–focused staff.
But for most districts, the lack of a guarantee that this relief funding will continue means a hiring spree is unrealistic. For districts that can find trained workers to hire in the midst of a national staffing shortage, adding a few more staff members won’t make up for the magnitude of need in our classrooms as we head into year three of an unprecedented global pandemic. While our schools’ mental health professionals are focused on the most critical cases, a chatbot can play an important role guiding families to resources and gauging their well-being and needs at scale.
“We’re using the chatbot to send simple messages checking in on how families are doing, letting them know we’re here for them,” said Mr. Brady. “In one case, we got positive feedback from a grandmother who used the bot to find mental health resources for the granddaughter she’s helping to raise.”
Students and family members of all ages are now accustomed to interacting with “robots” to help them get the information they need faster. In many cases, they even prefer this mode of communication.
A non-judgmental support system
A recent study estimates that one in eight children have mental disorders, and the vast majority do not receive treatment. While access to support is certainly part of the problem, mental healthcare continues to face a stigma that causes families to avoid raising potential issues that can grow into much bigger problems that block student success in the long-term.
It turns out, parents and students often don’t want to talk directly to school administrators about mental health issues. Districts that use a chatbot to support health and wellness find that families are more willing to ask for support.
“I give my cellphone number out to all my students, but they never use it,” said Dr. Michael D. Miles, Principal at the Memphis Academy, a charter school in Tennessee. “With the chatbot, they can ask questions without feeling like they’re bugging someone or being judged.”
Chatbots offer a non-confrontational, non-judgmental way for families to ask for support that could help grow the number of children getting the help they need.
A pathway towards equitable mental healthcare in schools
Mental health support has long been an under-invested part of the U.S. education system. A pre-pandemic study found that the student to counselor ratio was almost 500/1. This means that students who would benefit from access to a mental health professional or social worker instead end up caught in a punitive cycle of discipline.
This is especially true for black and brown families, who are more likely to experience mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, but less likely to seek help. This can be linked to the lack of access to culturally responsive healthcare. With new attention and funding for mental health in schools comes a responsibility to better support these students and their families.
Now more than ever, we need to build systems that don’t assume negative intent or disinterest, and instead, provide support for the whole child, starting with their mental health and well-being. A chatbot provides a unique opportunity to offer unbiased mental health outreach and support for communities that historically experience prejudice in our healthcare system.
Should chatbots be trusted to handle complex mental health needs and assign treatment plans to students? Not yet. But they can play a critical role in helping to proactively surface issues to school staff and empathetically guide parents to take the next best step for their child.
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