As many as one in five children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year and 40 percent of adolescents experience a mental health condition. At the same time, only about 7 percent of affected youth receive appropriate help from mental health professionals—and students of color are less likely to have access to these health services.
Untreated mental health conditions distract from learning and school engagement, potentially leading to grade retention, extensive special education needs, school drop-out, or even juvenile justice involvement.
Mental or behavioral health services in schools are traditionally thought of in terms of access to individualized treatment, but creating a positive school environment that supports the “whole child” can mitigate the effects of trauma for individual students and foster a culture of positivity for the whole student body. For instance, a report from the Learning Policy Institute offers a vision of schools that truly support student by offering a supportive and positive school climate that fosters strong relationships, teaching social and emotional learning skills, providing instructional strategies that promote a sense of motivation and competence and developing individualized supports that enable healthy development, respond to student needs and address learning barriers.
Creating these conditions and ensuring students have access to the mental health services they need is essential to support student mental health and wellness. Fortunately, there are new opportunities for realizing this vision. For example, the nation’s education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, creates new opportunities for states and school districts to leverage funding to support efforts to create safe and supportive school environments, including providing training to teachers. In addition, new funding opportunities through Medicaid and federal grant programs exist to support student mental health and wellness.
We have been working with partners at the national level to advocate for more resources to increase access mental health services and with individual states to craft plans that support mental health and wellness. We are also working with states to ensure their education policies and practices support student mental health, such as through providing professional development to school staff on how to support the mental health of students.
In the coming year, we will also be exploring ways to help states and school districts prioritize the positive school environments that are essential to supporting student mental health. In order for all students to have the opportunity to thrive, we need to make sure they’re in school and read to learn—and that includes addressing mental health.