Students’ mental wellness has a profound impact on their ability to engage in the learning environment and succeed academically. Unfortunately, students in K-12 report high levels of stress, depression and anxiety, and diagnoses have risen among school-age youths in recent years. While many students do not receive the treatment they need to address their mental health concerns, lack of access to school-based services is particularly prevalent for students of color and students from families with low incomes. Research shows that school-based mental health interventions can lead to improvements in overall mental health, educational, social and behavioral outcomes.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought many concerns around student health and wellness, more broadly, and trauma and mental health, more specifically. As states continue to grapple with the best ways to support student mental health, it is important to consider state policy trends predating the pandemic that may support those goals.
1. School Staff Training on Student Mental Health
Requiring training and professional development for school staff is one of the most common approaches states have taken to support student mental health in recent years. It stands to reason that school staff who were already trained in some aspects of student mental health may be better prepared to address those concerns throughout the pandemic — although those efforts may be hindered in virtual environments.
Legislation varies in what kinds of training states have required, including trauma-informed care, mental health awareness, social and emotional wellness, and suicide prevention. In 2019, Pennsylvania enacted legislation requiring school directors and employees to receive training on trauma-informed care, and a 2019 bill out of Washington added social and emotional learning to the states’ educator standards. In early 2020, Virginia and West Virginia instituted requirements for training on mental health awareness and suicide prevention. At least four other states have enacted legislation related to this topic in the last two legislative sessions: Maine, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
2. Student Access to Mental Health Professionals
Improving access to school-based mental health professionals is another common approach that takes a lot of different forms in state policy — and may have implications for students’ ability to receive the care they need during the pandemic. In recent years, several bills addressed funding and ratio requirements for school mental health professionals. In 2019, both Kentucky and Maryland enacted legislation addressing ratio requirements, and Colorado included ratio requirements as part of a pilot program that provides dedicated mental health professionals to elementary schools.
3. Attendance Policies for Mental Health Related Absences
As the pandemic continues, several states have recognized the need to reevaluate their attendance policies to account for virtual and hybrid settings and requirements. When it comes to recent trends in student mental health legislation, states have also been examining their attendance policies to account for mental health related absences. In 2020 alone, at least three states (Colorado, Maine and Virginia) have required that attendance policies include mental and/or behavioral health concerns as an allowable reason for an excused absence.
4. Mental Health Screening Protocols
State education leaders are still determining how to assess students both academically and emotionally to best support their needs during the pandemic. Interestingly, many states introduced legislation to institute screening protocols for student mental health prior to the pandemic. Utah provides one example of a state that enacted legislation in 2020 with a bill that allows the implementation of an evidence-based mental health screening program and outlines requirements for participation, including requiring parental consent.
These four policy trends may continue to receive attention as many states prioritize supporting student mental health during and after the current crisis. We will continue to explore state supports for student mental health — including state guidance and policies initiated since the onset of the pandemic — in the upcoming post in this blog series.