The data is clear: Our students are in the midst of a mental health crisis. A survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in three high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and nearly half of all students felt persistently hopeless.
We’re now seeing the ripple effects of three years of education disruptions and seismic shifts in learning structures, which underscore the vital importance of caring for the whole student. Our students’ difficulties mirror the increasing anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation that teens nationwide are experiencing. Over the past two years, Tempe Union High School District has centered its focus on prioritizing student mental health. Here’s how we did it–and what we’ve learned.
When we returned to in-person learning, we saw that our students needed even more support than we imagined. We didn’t hesitate when it came to getting them the resources they needed, because timing is critical for mental health challenges.
We asked our student representatives what social-emotional support they and their fellow students needed. That conversation evolved into a districtwide comprehensive mental health policy adopted by Tempe Union’s governing board in 2021. Cementing a resolution around social-emotional wellness into our policies signaled to our students and community that holistic health is a major priority for Tempe Union.
A policy alone wasn’t enough; we needed the human capital to mobilize our efforts. Our psychologists, counselors, and behavior interventionists were overwhelmed. School counselors are critical to mental wellness in schools, but they simply can’t reach every student. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-school-counselor ratio of 250:1, but the average is 408:1.
In addition to Tempe Union school counselors, our district has access to social workers to support our school community. But we needed more to help our students grappling with behavioral issues, mental health challenges, grief, anxiety, and depression.
Recognizing that our mission to provide equitable access to mental health care would require supplementing our internal resources, we partnered with Care Solace. Care Solace helps us coordinate mental health care for needs that exceed the scope of school-based services.
Using a three-pronged approach of enacting a policy, engaging our internal staff, and utilizing third-party resources, we identified three areas of opportunity for our mental health resources:
1. Improve wait time for care
The sheer volume of students who need the support of a qualified mental health professional is staggering, and our staff is constantly inundated with requests. Waiting only exacerbates the issue, so timely treatment is essential. Instead of allowing mental health challenges to intensify while students sit on an appointment waitlist, our students can now access a provider within days.
2. Embed a seamless staffing model
Our counselors and psychologists are a trusted resource for students throughout the district, and Care Solace acts as an extension of our team. Students and families feel they are staying within the same ecosystem of care when they seek support for mental health resources.
3. Encourage mental health conversations
The stigma around mental health can only hold its power if we don’t talk about it. Embracing and encouraging open discussions about mental well-being has been essential in normalizing care for mental health challenges.
We aren’t just here to help kids improve their test scores or get a 4.0 GPA; we’re here to give them the resources – including the social-emotional skills – to thrive as individuals. If we fail to consider the monumental impact that their mental health has on their overall well-being, then we fall short of our incredible responsibility.
Since implementing our focused approach on mental wellness resources, we’ve had the privilege of hearing firsthand from students and parents about positive outcomes through anecdotal feedback, along with a notable decrease in behavioral reports and increasing utilization of mental health services. The true reward is seeing what can happen when you emphasize the whole person in your approach to well-being.
Normalizing conversations around mental health is one of our most significant wins. Asking for help is not just okay–we passionately encourage it. That message permeates our schools and students’ homes. But empowering our students to seek help is only possible when we have robust resources to offer that support. Now we can help students foster the social-emotional resilience that will help them navigate challenges today and in the future.
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