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Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students’ Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago

Fewer than half of public schools—48 percent—report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs, and that number has dwindled in the past few years even as students’ needs have risen.

Those findings come from the most recent School Pulse survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, which polled 1,683 school leaders in March.

Today’s schoolchildren are dealing with a range of challenges that are impacting their mental health. Social media, the lingering effects of the pandemic, and the opioid crisis are often cited as major reasons.

For Chris Young, the principal of North Country Union High School, a campus of 720 students in Vermont, the ongoing opioid crisis has been a major challenge to his students’ mental health—and to his school’s ability to teach them.

“We live in a rural area that has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. So, we have been experiencing students with severe mental health needs in K through 12 for quite some time,” Young said. “There is significant housing instability, substance abuse, and food insecurity that students are experiencing and that obviously shows up in school.”

These mental health issues present themselves differently depending on the student’s age, he said. In elementary school, students tend to lash out and misbehave. In high school, they tend disengage, leading to chronic absenteeism. The pandemic, Young said, made what was already a tough situation in his community worse.

Fifty-eight percent of schools in the School Pulse survey said that the number of students who sought mental health services from their school increased a little or a lot compared with last year.

Schools face a number of challenges to meeting their students’ mental health needs, according to the School Pulse survey. One big one is a lack of mental health staff and funding—barriers that will likely grow for many schools as federal pandemic aid runs dry. Many schools used those federal funds to hire school counselors, social workers, and psychologists, and contract with outside providers.

Even so, 55 percent of schools in the survey reported they did not have enough mental health staff to manage students’ needs, 54 percent said they struggled with inadequate funding, and 49 percent said they couldn’t find enough licensed mental health professionals.

“We’ve always known that the responsibilities of schools go beyond academics, but these new data shine important light on the demands they face to support students who struggle with mental health issues,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr in a statement. “These challenges can be significant obstacles to student learning and well-being if not properly addressed.”

School counselors shoulder most of the burden

School counselors still shoulder most of the responsibility of providing mental health services to students on campus, with three-quarters of schools saying that counselors provide mental health services to students. That’s down 8 percent from last school year.

Despite challenges with staffing, nearly all schools surveyed said they provide some kind of mental health service for students, ranging from telehealth to outreach to making referrals to outside mental health professionals. On average, those schools report that 1 in 5 of their students have used these services.

In many cases, schools are leaning on teachers to help support students’ mental health. Sixty-three percent of schools said they offered professional development to train teachers to support students’ social-emotional and mental well-being.

Among schools that had made changes to their school calendars to support students’ mental health, such as designating time during the school day or giving students days off to focus on mental health, 67 percent have kept those changes.

Forty-four percent of schools said they created or expanded a program to support student social-emotional and mental well-being this year and 27 percent said they created new positions to support these efforts.

At North Country Union High School, Young has focused a lot of attention on social-emotional learning and mental well-being through events, activities, and guest speakers. Teachers also regularly set aside time to address SEL and mental well-being in their advisory periods, or homerooms, with students.

“We have a skit night, and the kids are making fun of how much we talk about mental health,” he said. “Which I think is great, we are beating them over the head with it.”

But, Young said, if the school doesn’t meet students’ mental health needs, then many students do not learn.

Young has also invested in hiring several additional mental health support staff. Two of those positions were paid for initially with federal pandemic aid, and his school will keep those positions permanently.

But hiring someone to support students’ mental well-being often comes with a tradeoff, said Young, and it’s tricky finding a balance between supporting students’ academics and mental health without sacrificing one for the other.

“That is a battle that is constantly playing out in my mind of: ‘Should I be advocating for more intervention teachers, who support students academically, or should I be advocating for another counselor?’” he said.

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