Schools are facing an enormous task in delivering mental health services to a growing number of students with urgent needs. Even before the pandemic, the gap in achievement levels due to mental health struggles was widening. The pandemic did not create this challenge; it only expanded the need.
Long-established approaches to addressing student mental health continue to be relevant today, but schools are at a moment of freshly examining how, where, and who is best positioned to tackle these challenges.
Recognizing both the new and the familiar in the challenges schools are facing
The pandemic didn’t redefine mental health or how to address it. What it did was make it harder for everybody. It highlighted any gaps that adults and children had in their mental health, in their general coping abilities, and in their ability to connect with other people. And it actively inflicted new trauma.
In a recent NPR article, Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Boston noted, “I am getting a significant number of calls from schools requesting education and professional development for teachers around how to support kids with trauma.” The sooner we address this deficit in mental health services, the greater the possibility that we can avoid long-lasting damage.
“The past year has been unsettling for even our most emotionally stable students. The uncertainty of the pandemic has undermined students’ trust that schools will stay open, sports will keep being played, and that friends and family will remain healthy,” said Isaiah Pickens, PhD, Founder & CEO of iOpening Enterprises, who specializes in a trauma-informed approach. The trauma-informed approach is, at its heart, a relationship-based approach. It creates an opportunity for the teacher to work with students to understand their life experiences and identify their triggers, and develop their coping skills. It is resonating in schools because on some level, all students and staff have collectively and individually experienced pandemic-related trauma.
“These trends are being seen nationwide, but the promising news is that the more students have consistent support from adults in their lives, the greater levels of healing we are seeing,” continues Dr. Pickens. “The intentional support of adults who can model healthy responses to life’s uncertainty is one of our biggest assets for students as we emerge from a difficult year.”
Prioritizing comfortable environments for students
Mental health is multifaceted, and engaging students in a place where they feel safe, seen, and engaged is an essential first step in building a comfortable relationship for therapeutic services. The pandemic revealed opportunities to personalize mental health support through online engagement, which gives the student more options to gain the services they need, in an environment that suits them. Although schools are eager to move away from full time virtual learning, selective use of online services may be the connection to getting students the right clinical relationship.
Stephanie Taylor, a clinical director of psychoeducational services, highlights that teletherapy can help students connect with a counselor who is suited to their individual needs.
“It’s important to recognize that some students might need to connect with somebody who they don’t have the opportunity to see in their community,” she says. “For example, in one scenario all the counselors that are employed at a school might be men and a female student would feel much more comfortable talking to another female. In other scenarios, a student might be very culturally different from the community that they live in and the idea that they could talk to somebody who is culturally similar is essential for establishing trust for some students.”
The American Rescue Plan provides approximately $122 billion for K-12 schools to create safe learning environments and help students get back on track. A meaningful portion of the funds are allocated to special education, learning loss, mental health services, and bridging the digital gap through equitable technology support to lower income communities.
With funding available, schools can finally bring in the resources they need for their specific communities and student needs. “We are seeing schools add dedicated mental health counselors at the highest rate ever,” shares Brandon Jones, CEO of Triad, which provides career training and resources to mental health professionals. “With 56 million K12 students in the US, schools are finding themselves on the front line of mental health. And they’re responding in kind – schools that had previously limited staffing to guidance counselor and school psychologist positions are now adding counselor roles entirely focused on student wellbeing.”
Finding the right solutions and creative strategies for a district’s behavioral mental health programs will come by listening to the students and developing a student-centered approach. Innovative initiatives have been directly formed from students expressing their needs and on local and state levels. One example is the introduction of mental health days as part of a school’s absentee policies. Another creative adaptation of school parameters was seen at an Iowa school, where volunteering doing yard work for the elderly and other community-centered activities apply towards PE.
The pandemic has amplified and highlighted needs but also brought new creativity and resources to bear in how we solve them. Hope is evident among educators finding that after many years of wanting to address mental health, more practical solutions and more funding are emerging to make it a reality.