Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

What has been the MOST effective strategy your school has used to address student mental health?

Everyone has had a bad day before. The type of day where nothing seems to go right, you’re worrying about something, or you just don’t feel good. When these days happen, it’s hard to focus, do work, and you may feel easily irritated, frustrated, and overwhelmed.  People with mental health issues are more likely to experience “bad days” like this more often than not. Imagine you are a youth who feels like this most days, but is still expected to focus in class, learn, do homework, have friends, and get along with teachers.

Approximately half of adults whose lives are disrupted by mental health problems, first experienced symptoms in their youth, some as early as 6 years old (Murphey et al., 2014). Research has consistently shown that poor mental health and emotional well-being is linked to a youth’s poor academic achievement (Charvat, 2012). Mental health disorders are more than disruptive; they can also be deadly. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages 10 and 24 (Murphey et al., 2014). The good news is research has also shown that poor mental health can be prevented and treated (Charvat, 2012).

Mental health curriculum, programs, and interventions must do more than address mental illness though, they also need to cultivate in students the skills necessary “to cope with life’s challenges,” which may ultimately reduce the risk of developing a mental health issue in the first place (Whelley, Cash, & Bryson, 2002).  In order to improve mental health, and ultimately school climate, mental health improvement efforts must be integrated into all child-serving spaces – classroom, campus, community, and home (Howard & Adelman, 2012). This is particularly important for students in low income households, foster care, the juvenile justice system, and for those who experience traumatic events because they are at a higher risk for mental health problems and have less access to services (Guo, Wade, & Keller, 2008). Outlined below are several ways to integrate mental health improvement efforts across child-serving spaces.

School-Based Health Centers with Mental Health Services

According to the National Assembly of School Based Health Care, 2007-2008 Census, there are just under 2000 school-based health centers in the U.S., with nearly 75% staffing at least one mental health provider such as a licensed clinical social worker, psychologist, and substance abuse counselor (Strozer, Juszczak, & Ammerman, 2010). Mental health staff can help meet the mental health and behavioral needs of youth of all ages, from diagnosis to treatment. SBHCs increase opportunity to receive necessary mental health care for all students, but especially minority and impoverished youth. Because of its accessibility, students were shown to be 10 to 21 times more likely to use a SBHC for mental health care than any other place. Students who attend schools with SBHCs have also been shown to have lower rates of depression and suicide ideation (Guo, Wade, & Keller, 2008).

Youth Mental Health First Aid

Because students spend most of their day in school, teachers and school staff may find themselves in a position of needing to respond to mental health needs. Youth Mental Health First Aid (Youth MHFA) is an international evidence-based program designed for people who work with youth ages 12 through 18. Youth MHFA has been shown to increase participants’ understanding of mental health issues and ability to respond appropriately to youth in emotional distress, while improving their own mental wellness at the same time (USA Mental Health First Aid, n.d.)! 

Social and Emotional Learning

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is an evidence-based program that seeks to improve students’ understanding of themselves and others in a school context as a foundation for better outcomes, mental health and otherwise, in youth. SEL can help improve academic performance, increase positive social behaviors, and decrease behavior problems and emotional distress (CASEL, 2015).

Trauma-Informed Care

When discussing mental health concerns with children, it is important to consider trauma. One out of four children experience some form of trauma (NCTSN, n.d.). Youth who experience trauma are significantly more likely to experience a host of mental health, academic, and behavioral problems (SAMHSA, 2011). However, children who received trauma-informed care through their school and community had significantly improved emotional, behavioral, physical, and academic well-being (SAMHSA, 2011).


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