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School-Based Supports

Schools Are a Natural Setting to Support Mental Health

School-based mental health is becoming a vital part of student support systems. According to the most recent data in 2005, over one-third of school districts used school or district staff to provide mental health services, and over one-fourth used outside agencies to provide mental health services in the schools.1 The President’s Now Is the Time plan to improve access to mental health care in our schools and communities emphasizes the urgency to “make sure students and young adults get treatment for mental health issues” through early identification, referral for treatment, training for school teachers in early detection and response to mental illness, assistance for schools to address pervasive violence, and training for additional mental health professionals to provide mental health services in schools.2 Federal agencies such as the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Institute of Medicine are also calling on schools to enhance early identification methods to assess and connect students with mental health.3

Mentally healthy students are more likely to go to school ready to learn, actively engage in school activities, have supportive and caring connections with adults and young people, use appropriate problem-solving skills, have nonaggressive behaviors, and add to positive school culture. Although many students are mentally healthy, the Center for Mental Health in Schools estimates that between 12 and 22 percent of school-aged children and youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Because children and youth spend the majority of their time in school, schools play an increasingly critical role in supporting these students and providing a safe, nonstigmatizing, and supportive natural environment in which children, youth, and families have access to prevention, early intervention, and treatment through school-based mental health programs. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health indicated that adolescents are more comfortable accessing health care services through school-based clinics and like the idea of accessing a range of health and social services in a single location.4 Further, schools provide a natural setting in which students can receive needed supports and services and where families are comfortable and trusting in accessing these supports and services.

Implementing School-Based Mental Health Services

The ways school districts implement school-based mental health services vary. They may hire school-based therapists or social workers. They can provide access to prevention programming, early identification of mental health challenges, and treatment options. They can also partner with community mental health organizations and agencies to develop an integrated, comprehensive program of support and services to do the following:

  • Develop evidence-based programs to provide positive school climate and promote student skills in dealing with bullying and conflicts, solving problems, developing healthy peer relationships, engaging in activities to prevent suicide and substance use, and so on.
  • Develop early intervention services for students in need of additional supports such as skill groups to deal with grief, anger, anxiety, sadness, and so on.
  • Develop treatment programs and services that address the various mental health needs of students.
  • Develop student and family supports and resources.
  • Develop a school culture in which teachers and other student support staff are trained to recognize the early warning signs of mental health issues with students.
  • Develop a referral process to ensure that all students have equal access to services and supports.

Further, early identification and referral resources may reflect a school climate that is comfortable talking about and addressing emotional health, which again may reduce the stigma often associated with receiving mental health treatment.5

Benefits of School-Based Mental Health Services

Studies have shown the value of developing comprehensive school mental health programs in helping students achieve academically and have access to experiences that build social skills, leadership, self-awareness, and caring connections to adults in their school and community.6 Schools that also choose to collaborate with community partners have found that they can enhance the academic success of individual students.7 These partnerships have found to significantly improve schoolwide truancy8 and discipline rates, increase the rates of high school graduation, and help create a positive school environment in which a student can learn and be successful in school and in the community.9 Visit the youth voices page to hear from three students, Cameron, Justin and Megan, as they share how school-based mental health services have helped them.  

1 Foster et al., 2005
2 The White House, 2013
3 Green et al., 2013
4 OAH, 2013
5 Green, et al, 2013.
6 Durlak, et al, 2011.
7 CASEL, 2011.
8 Yeide, Kobrin, 2009.
9 National Council for Community Behavioral Health, 2011.

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