Advocacy for Mental Health in Schools Starts With Us

There is no shortage of headlines decrying our kids and students are grappling with unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety. A meta-analysis of studies looking at global rates of depression and anxiety found that one in four adolescents are reporting clinical levels of depression and one in five met the clinical threshold for anxiety. More recently, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released in February found that nearly three in five U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—double that of boys, representing a nearly 60% increase and the highest level reported over the past decade. 

In response to these numbers, at a recent town hall event with high school students, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said, “The mental well-being of our students will determine their level of success more than whether they can read or not. Period.” 

I couldn’t agree more. As the mom of a young woman, I find this not only alarming, but heart-breaking and overwhelming as we think about the needs of the young people in our lives. And as a career educator, I now have the opportunity to work with school systems leaders from all over the country in their efforts to create optimal conditions for young people and educators to thrive. 

In my work with these leaders, including the Learner-Centered Leadership Lab, a cohort of superintendents who are focused on centering student well-being, I’m encouraged that there is a consensus that mental health is crucial to academic success and that we all—school and system leaders, counselors, teachers and all other caring adults in the building—have a role to play in addressing every child’s mental health.  

A Two-Fold Path to Address Mental Health in Schools

Developing a school culture that values the mental well-being of all children—whether they are currently in crisis or not—is crucial. Meaningful relationships between students and educators help inoculate them during challenging moments.

School connectedness—the degree to which young people feel that adults and peers at school care about them and are invested in their success—has been credited as a key contributor to mental health.  According to one study, youth who felt connected have fewer problems with substance use, mental health, suicidality, and risky sexual behavior as adults. Attending to the whole child is rooted in school design and must be intentionally woven into daily rituals, including teacher roles, curriculum, and schedules. DC Public School Van Ness Elementary’s  model focuses on student wellbeing in addition to academics, teaching students stress management and self-awareness skills in order to thrive. 

When I worked in  Dallas ISD, we engaged in a resource from Transcend called Conversations with Kidsto hear directly from young people about their experiences to help inform decisions. Other practices that can be embedded in schools include working to develop social-emotional learning competencies, incorporating physical wellness, collaborating with families, and strategies here.

We must invest resources in growing the pipeline of school-based health professionals that provide the level of care and support needed for students experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Research demonstrates that access to mental health services in K-12 settings improves students’ health, academic and social outcomes. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that only half of U.S. public schools offer mental health assessments, and even fewer offer treatment services. In my home state of Colorado, the state legislature has been reviewing legislation to increase funding and decrease barriers to hiring licensed mental health professionals in schools. 

Colorado’s School Counselor Corps Grant Program helped hire and support more school counselors to boost the graduation rate and postsecondary opportunities for K-12 students. The average grant-funded school’s student-to-counselor ratio was well below the best practice recommendation of 250-to-1. Schools with the grant saw improvements in student engagement, graduation rates, and career readiness.

In the decade leading up to the pandemic, feelings of persistent sadness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and behaviors increased by 40% among youth, according to the CDC Youth@ Risk Behavior Surveillance System. All these difficulties, on top of growing concerns about social media, mass violence, climate change, and political polarization—not to mention the normal ups and downs of just being a kid and adolescent—can feel overwhelming for those who work with kids. While the pandemic certainly didn’t launch the current mental health crisis we are living through, it can be credited with elevating our collective consciousness around this urgent issue and can propel us forward toward investing in solutions. Solutions can be as straightforward as ensuring every child has an accessible, boundaried, and caring Trusted Adult in school and as complex as changing funding and accountability systems to align better with mental health needs in schools.  Achieving solutions will require partnership across parents and school and funding agencies, but it will be worth the effort. Our kids deserve it.

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