The COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges to the American education system and its students, educators, and parents. In 2020, more than half of all American public schools switched to full/partial online learning in response to social distancing protocols which, in turn, cut off many social and mental resources to American children. These changes significantly affected students already diagnosed with mental health conditions, as many students’ sole access to mental health services were obtained through their school. The transition to online learning had severe repercussions for many American children and adolescents, as seen in a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, which found that between April and October 2020, the number of children between the ages of 5 and 11 who visited a hospital’s ER due to mental health crisis increased by 24 percent with the number of 12- to 17-year-olds visiting the ER increasing by 31 percent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reintroduced the conversation regarding students’ access to mental health services in school districts across the country and has demonstrated the need for additional mental health resources for students. Mentally healthy students are much more likely to be able to concentrate within the classroom, actively engage in their class and in school activities, and do well in their studies. Regardless of whether schools are returning to full-time in-person learning or continuing a hybrid learning model, educators must ask themselves moving forward if their students have access to the mental health resources they deserve. One of the fastest-growing school districts in the Kansas City area, North Kansas City Schools has long held mental health resources are a top priority for their students. North Kansas City Schools superintendent Dan Clemens has implemented a variety of effective mental health programs and services, including NKC School’s latest program, Hope Squad: a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program that reduces youth suicide through education, training, and peer intervention. As a major proponent of in-school mental health services, North Kansas City Schools hopes to discuss with readers the importance of mental health resources for American students.
Researchers have found that schools are ideal for providing mental and behavioral health services for children as schools offer a safe place for students to discuss their educational and personal lives with mental health professionals. Furthermore, students of all ages are far more likely to seek out counseling when resources are available to them within their school. Schools provide an ideal context for positive development, intervention, and crisis prevention as counselors and therapists can work as the bridge between school staff and families. Additionally, in some rural communities, the mental health services schools provide may be the only services available within the community, making it imperative that schools prioritize mental health services. This has been especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when many students in rural areas without access to mental health services showed greater instances of major depressive episodes.
Implementing School-Based Mental Health Services
There are many different ways school districts can implement school-based mental health services, such as hiring child therapists, social workers, and psychologists or providing access to prevention programming and treatment options. Schools that may not have a flexible budget have begun teaming up with community mental health organizations and agencies to develop a comprehensive community program for their students to supply support and services for various mental health issues. Regardless of the vehicle school districts choose to supply students with mental health services, it is crucial that school mental health programs focus on:
- Providing students and their family members with mental health support and resources
- Creating a school culture in which students and staff members are able to identify the early warning signs of mental health issues and trauma
- Developing an early intervention system for students that need a greater degree of support, such as students experiencing the loss of a family member
- Providing students with access to treatment programs and services designed to address a wide variety of mental health needs
- Developing programs to foster a positive school climate that addresses bullying and student conflict, healthy peer relationships, addiction, and substance abuse
Even before the pandemic, there existed a growing need for mental health services for elementary, middle, and high school students. A recent survey conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that one in five children and adolescents have experienced a mental health problem during their school experience. Some of the most common mental health issues include anxiety, bullying, depression, learning disabilities, home life problems, and alcohol and substance abuse. In recent years, self-injury and suicide among youth have been on the rise as many children and adolescents do not receive the help they need, especially those in low-income households. One survey found that of 3.8 million children between the ages of 12-17 who had a major depressive episode in 2019, roughly 60% did not receive any mental health treatment. However, of the adolescents who did receive help, nearly two-thirds received that help from their school.