Supporting Students: What’s Next for Mental Health

Peer counseling, college re-enrollment programs & district mental health services coordinators offer promising signs of success others could replicate

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Toyin Anderson is a mom looking for solutions to what she sees as a crisis of youth crying out for help with their mental health. 

“Our kids are still struggling. From the pandemic, the lack of being able to socialize, from losses of family members due to COVID or to violence in the community, that stuff has not been addressed,” says Ms. Anderson, who advocates for hiring more mental health professionals in her Rochester, New York, school district.

People across the country are searching for ways to support many of America’s children and young adults, who say they’re facing stress, anxiety, and depression. Remote school, shuttered activities, and family job losses during the pandemic often changed their lives – and their sense of well-being. 

Even before the pandemic began, more than 1 in 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Now, despite nearly all K-12 schools and colleges being open for in-person learning in the most recent school year, many students are still struggling: 

  • 70% of public schools reported that since the start of the pandemic, the percentage of students who sought mental health services increased, according to an April survey from the Institute of Education Sciences. 
  • The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory warning of a youth mental health crisis in December 2021, following a declaration earlier that fall of a “national emergency in child and adolescent mental health” by a coalition of pediatric groups.
  • 88% of college students polled in a January 2022 survey by TimelyMD, a higher ed telehealth provider, said there’s a mental health crisis at colleges and universities in the United States.  

There are also increased efforts to find solutions. In partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, seven newsrooms across the U.S. set out to examine efforts that are working for addressing students’ mental health needs, such as peer counseling, college re-enrollment programs, and district mental health services coordinators. The initiatives might not be effective in all ways, or for all students, but there are encouraging signs of success that others could replicate. The approaches also add to the conversation happening around the country. 

Third grader Alexis Kelliher points to her feelings while visiting a sensory room at Williams elementary school, Nov. 3, 2021, in Topeka, Kansas. The rooms are designed to relieve stresses faced by students as they return to classrooms amid the ongoing pandemic.

People “from middle America to the coasts” are talking more about care for adults and children, and are seeking help from faith communities, schools, neighbors, and professionals, says Sharon Hoover, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “That wouldn’t have happened 20, 30 years ago in the same kind of way – even five years ago – so that gives me hope.” 

The Hopeful Futures Campaign, a coalition of mental health advocates, including Dr. Hoover, published the first national school mental health report card in February. The report card grades states on eight policies identified by the campaign as solutions to the crisis. It finds that most states are far off recommended ratios of school counselors and psychologists to students in K-12 schools. 

Solutions identified by the Hopeful Futures Campaign include hiring more school mental health professionals, training teachers and staff in mental health and suicide prevention, and establishing regular well-being checks – also known as universal screeners – to identify students and staff who may need support. 

Those types of solutions are attracting attention from lawmakers. “We’re seeing more state legislatures and executive branches trying to figure out what more can we do,” says Hemi Tewarson, president and executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP), a nonpartisan policy organization. 

Between March 2020 and December 2021, 92 state laws were enacted to help youth mental health through efforts in schools, according to a NASHP analysis. Those efforts ranged from North Carolina establishing a grant program for schools to hire psychologists to Texas requiring schools to include crisis line and suicide prevention lifeline contact information on identification cards for secondary students. Connecticut, meanwhile, permits K-12 students to take two mental health days per year. 

Even as new ideas rollout, challenges remain. Not all stakeholders are on board with expanding support in schools, which some say could burden educators and encroach on parent rights. When the superintendent in a small Connecticut town recently proposed opening a mental health clinic at a high school, for example, the school board rejected the plan. 

Schools themselves are also pondering how effective they can be in the current environment, given shortages of mental health professionals and funding. In the 2020-2021 school year, 56% of public schools “moderately or strongly agreed that they could effectively provide mental health services to all students in need,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  

The reporting from the collaboration newsrooms suggests that educators are trying to reconcile the roadblocks and the solutions by addressing questions like: How do we reach more young people, even in the midst of limited resources? How do we make sure what we are doing for students is actually meeting their needs and includes their input? 

Back in Rochester, Ms. Anderson – who holds leadership roles with the local group Children’s Agenda and with United Parent Leaders Parent Action Network – is also forging a path forward. She has led a community march and attended school board meetings to urge the district, where her son will remain in the fall, to better implement its current wellness plans and use pandemic relief money to expand mental health support. She plans to move her daughter to a private Catholic school, in part because it offers more mental health resources.

“The country needs to be proactive, not only in my community,” she says. “This is everyone’s business to make sure the kids in this country are well.”

This originally appeared at The Christian Science Monitor and is published here in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Exchange.

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