May is Mental Health Awareness Month! It also marks 15 months of a global pandemic that has had dramatic, negative impacts across all states and communities; and many students, families and school staff are struggling to navigate the changes the pandemic has wrought. Students have experienced school and learning disruption and significant mental health challenges because of social isolation, trauma, grief, loss and the other layers of COVID-related stress and burden.
As education leaders around the country roll up their sleeves to strategize around lost learning opportunities, attention to promoting student mental health and well-being should garner similar attention. This serves a dual purpose:
- Offering early identification and accessible mental health services to students at school, where they spend most of their waking hours, can promote long-term positive health and academic outcomes and can save lives.
- Students’ mental health and wellness is an indicator of educational engagement and academic success. Addressing student mental health may make a dent in the loss of learning experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As state and district leaders plan for a return to in-person learning, there are some key considerations to promote student mental health before, during and after this transition:
Establish a framework of comprehensive school mental health systems (CSMHS) for your state.
This provides a full array of supports and services that promote positive school climate, social and emotional learning, and mental health and well-being, while reducing the prevalence and severity of mental illness. The framework should be built on a foundation of district and school professionals, including administrators and educators, specialized instructional support personnel (e.g., school psychologists, school social workers, school counselors, school nurses, other school health professionals) in strategic partnerships with students, families, and community health and mental health partners. Additionally, assess and address the social, political and environmental structures — public policies and social norms — that influence mental health outcomes.
The good news? There are existing frameworks to lean on that are flexible enough to put your state-specific spin on.
You can also gauge how your state is doing with respect to school mental health policies and practices, and encourage your districts and schools to assess and improve their CSMHS via a free, online portal, the School Health Assessment and Performance Evaluation (SHAPE) System. This website also has a State School Mental Health Policy Map to learn more about school mental health policy in your state and across the country.
Support the mental health needs of all students via universal approaches, such as:
- Offer mental health literacy for K-12 staff and students including knowledge of obtaining and sustaining positive mental health, understanding mental illness, and promoting help-seeking. Several states include mental health literacy in health education curricula.
- Integrate social and emotional learning into K-12 curricula to promote self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness.
- Assess and engage in continuous improvement toward positive school climate. The National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments has a School Climate Improvement Resource Package with free climate assessment and implementation support tools.
- Implement strategies to promote educator well-being, including organization approaches like appreciative inquiry and offering in-school respite breaks for teachers, and individual strategies like addressing secondary traumatic stress among teachers and creating personal self-care plans.
Establish systems to identify student mental health concerns early. You can do this by offering training for teachers to help them identify, support and refer students in distress. ClassroomWISE offers a free training course, launching in June. Additionally, schools and districts can conduct regular student well-being check-ins to assess subjective well-being, mental health, connectedness and supports. Several organizations, including Closegap and TRAILS have created activities and materials for school staff to connect and engage students.
Maximize avenues to provide on-site school mental health services to students who are experiencing challenges. Options include:
- Hire, retain and offer ongoing professional development to a full complement of student support professionals, including school psychologists, social workers and counselors.
- Establish formal partnerships (e.g., memoranda of understanding) with community behavioral health providers to offer on-site services and supports and to facilitate referrals and coordination of community-based mental health services.
- Leverage diverse funding, including Medicaid, to pay for school mental health services and supports.
If you want to learn more about advancing school mental health in your state, reach out to the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.