Schools feel less equipped to meet students’ mental health needs than they did a few years ago

Less than half of public schools (48%) report being able to effectively address students’ mental health needs, and that number has declined in recent years even as students’ needs have increased.

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

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

For Chris Young, principal of North Country Union High School, a campus of 720 students in Vermont, the current opioid crisis poses a major challenge to the mental health of his students 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 encountering students with severe mental health needs for some time, from K-12,” Young said. “Students face a lot of housing instability, substance abuse and food insecurity and that obviously manifests itself in school. »

These mental health issues present differently depending on the age of the student, he said. In elementary school, students tend to lash out and misbehave. In high school, they tend to become disengaged, which leads to chronic absenteeism. The pandemic, Young said, has made an already difficult situation in his community worse.

Fifty-eight percent of schools surveyed in the School Pulse survey said the number of students seeking mental health services from their school had increased a little or a lot compared to last year.

Schools face a number of challenges in meeting the mental health needs of their students, according to the School Pulse survey. One of the biggest problems is a lack of mental health staffing and funding — obstacles that will likely grow in many schools as federal pandemic aid dries up. Many schools used these federal funds to hire school counselors, social workers and psychologists, and contract with outside providers.

Despite this, 55 percent of schools surveyed said they did not have enough mental health staff to manage students’ needs, 54 percent said they struggled with insufficient funding, and 49 percent said they did not. not finding enough licensed mental health professionals.

“We have always known that schools’ responsibilities extend beyond academics, but this new data highlights the demands they face in supporting students struggling with mental health issues,” said NCES Commissioner , Peggy G. Carr, in a press release. “These challenges can pose significant barriers to student learning and well-being if not properly addressed. »

School counselors shoulder most of the burden

School counselors still bear the majority of responsibility for providing mental health services to students on campus, with three-quarters of schools reporting that counselors provide mental health services to students. That’s an 8 percent drop from last school year.

Despite staffing challenges, almost all schools surveyed said they provide some sort of mental health service to students, ranging from telehealth to outreach to referrals to outside mental health professionals. On average, these schools report that one in five students have used these services.

In many cases, schools rely 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 made changes to their school calendars to support student mental health, such as designating times during the school day or giving students days off to focus on mental health, 67% kept these changes.

Forty-four percent of schools reported creating or expanding a program to support students’ social-emotional and mental well-being this year and 27 percent reported creating new positions to support these efforts.

At North Country Union High School, Young has placed a lot of focus 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 during their consultation periods, or in class, with students.

“We have a skit night and the kids make fun of how we talk about mental health,” he said. “What I think is great, we’re hitting them over the head with this.”

But, Young said, if the school doesn’t address students’ mental health needs, many students don’t learn.

Young also invested in hiring several additional mental health support staff. Two of those positions were initially funded by federal pandemic aid, and his school will retain those positions permanently.

But hiring someone to support students’ mental well-being often involves a trade-off, Young said, and it’s difficult to balance academic support and students’ mental health without sacrificing one for the other. .

“It’s a battle that constantly plays out in my mind: ‘Should I advocate for more intervention teachers, who support students academically, or should I advocate for another counselor?’” did he declare.