Are Schools Ready to Address Student Mental Health?

Millions of American students suffer from mental health conditions, yet only a fraction of those students are receiving necessary and life-saving treatment, according to research from the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

It’s a problem that has been growing for a number of years. Reports by the New York Times suggest that in 2016 over 62 percent of college students reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety,” an increase of 12 percent from surveys taken five years prior. Furthermore, hospitalizations for mood disorders among children under the age of 17 increased by 68 percent between 1997 and 2011.

Today, nearly 20 percent of American students suffer from mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders, amounting to nearly 15 million affected children. Of those 15 million, half do not receive the necessary treatment to help them overcome their particular struggles. Astonishingly, only 7.4 percent of adolescents report visiting with a mental health professional over the course of a year, and a majority of those students access mental health services through their school.

“Schools sometimes serve as the de facto mental health system for children in the United States,” write the authors of the recently published AIR research, Elizabeth Freeman and Kimberly Kendziora.  

The solution, according to Freeman and Kendziora, may seem simple. The report recommends that schools develop “multi-level, evidence-based interventions” to reverse this trend for students — paying special attention to those living in poverty.

This kind of solution, while sound in theory, is complicated. In-school supports are already vastly overstretched. While The National Association of School Psychologists recommend a ratio of no more than 700 students per school psychologist when comprehensive mental health services are being provided, the current ratio across American schools in 2014–15 was estimated to be nearly twice that. Teachers — who are already responsible for their students’ academic achievement and classroom maintenance — typically receive little training in addressing mental health concerns in the classroom.

Even if they are able to identify red flags, many teachers are already overburdened with responsibility.

“Even though educators can be extremely effective in identifying red flags in student interactions and behaviors, our teachers are already pushed to the max,” says Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs at Mental Health America,

Problems like these become exacerbated in rural areas where there are even fewer mental health professionals available to help students and a lack of economic resources to help students who are affected. It’s a problem that’s likely to seep into the suburbs, as poverty becomes more prevalent and resources more finite.

Limitations aside, faculty and school resources might be offer the most promising options when it comes to addressing  the student mental health crisis for now.

By establishing relationships with local doctors, hospitals, and mental health agencies, school employees can drastically improve the outcomes of students who may be struggling with their mental health.

“Partnerships between schools and community mental/behavioral health professionals offer students and families an extended network of services that are easily accessible,” Freeman and Kendziora argue. “When programs are able to identify and address student mental and behavioral challenges early, students are more likely to gain resiliency skills and be successful in school and life while the threat of later harm is reduced.”

It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by other mental health professionals.

“It’s best that they be seen as partners—with parents, the administration, the community—in helping students with mental health challenges,” Nguyen argues.

While solutions might not be simple for the time being, it’s clear that the problem must be addressed on some level. School administrators, teachers, and parents cannot simply wait for the problem to solve itself, or wait until students are in crisis to address the issue — early intervention is necessary.

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