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How Can Schools Support Student Mental Health? 2 Principals and a Psychiatrist Weigh In

School district leaders across the country are battling a crisis in student mental health with limited funds, the limited availability of mental health professionals, and limited clarity on the best path forward.

In 2021, 42 percent of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless for at least two consecutive weeks that they stopped engaging in their usual activities, up from 26 percent from 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Those numbers were higher among girls and LGBTQ+ youth. Meanwhile, Black children have been nearly twice as likely as their white peers to die by suicide in recent years.

The challenge hasn’t spared any school district, large or small, urban or rural, and a nationwide shortage of school psychologists and other mental health professionals hasn’t made it any easier to respond. During the 2021-22 school year, there were 1,127 students to every school psychologist nationally, over double the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of 500 students to every psychologist. Plus, many school psychologists’ days are consumed by testing for special education rather than providing mental health services to students.

School leaders, especially those in rural areas where access to mental health services can be limited, have found creative ways to respond to the crisis.

In a Dec. 7 conversation with Education Week, two principals—Ben Carr of Mountain View High School in Wyoming and Jonathan Apostol of Monnett Middle School in Missouri—shared how they have ramped up mental health support for their students.

Both lead schools in rural areas, where it can be difficult to access mental health care, and have worked to establish partnerships with local mental health centers and therapists to provide in-school support. They’ve also expanded suicide prevention programs that train even students to recognize signs that their peers are in trouble and emphasized preventive measures, such as social-emotional learning and mental health screening.

“As a school, we definitely have a responsibility to provide these mental health supports during a student’s school day,” Carr said. “We have to get creative. If it was easy, students would already be doing it.”

The dedication of principals like Carr and Apostol is necessary to address mental health problems among students and prevent challenges from becoming bigger, said Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at The Jed Foundation, which works with schools and districts on instituting comprehensive strategies for mental health support and suicide prevention.

“We have so many opportunities to support young people, and there’s so much we can do to improve things so they become the adults that then run our communities and help us to solve these problems,” Erickson-Schroth said.

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