Student mental health is still suffering–how should we address it?


Key points:

Between March 2020 and March 2021, K-12 schools in the U.S. saw an unprecedented influx in federal government aid, totaling nearly $190 billion. This funding aimed to help students recover both academically and emotionally from the pandemic. School districts across the country utilized these grants to hire counselors, social workers, psychologists, and other care providers. In theory, this should have been transformative; however, the available workforce wasn’t large enough to meet the demand, and traditionally underserved and rural districts faced the brunt of this shortage.

Subsequent follow-up funding has been deployed by the federal government in a necessary step to increase the workforce of care providers. As these funding opportunities come to a close, many districts are still left struggling to adequately address their students’ mental health needs.

According to the CDC, more than one in three high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, but in reality, the rate of U.S. students struggling with these challenges was rising even before COVID. The pandemic’s disruption to students’ schooling and development only exacerbated mental health issues, resulting in worsening anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues. As funds such as ESSER come to a close, schools that were able to increase care teams or introduce new mental well-being initiatives are now facing a funding cliff. The impact of this is predictable: Students will suffer as staff and programs are cut. To address this problem, the U.S. education system must look to alternative solutions.

Expanding beyond traditional approaches

Counselors, social workers, and school psychologists are the most impactful front-line resources available for supporting student mental well-being; however, these professionals are saddled with huge caseloads and demands beyond their normal purview. For example, according to a 2020 survey of 7,000 school counselors, many were required to serve as substitute teachers, perform temperature checks, and take on other tasks as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. To improve mental health support to students, we have to expand our narrow perception of what care can look like.

Looking beyond a traditional western medicine approach, school districts should consider adopting solutions such as peer-to-peer counseling, where students who have been trained can meet to support one another and address personal, social, or emotional challenges. Peer-to-peer counseling empowers students to become stakeholders in their mental health while also providing benefits such as cultural relevance, early intervention, crisis prevention, and social-emotional skill development. This effective strategy is strongly advocated for by California’s Children Trust, which has worked tirelessly over the past few years to make peer-to-peer support reimbursable for California schools through Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.

Additionally, utilizing a community-based collaborative care model can further bolster a school system’s mental health resources. This type of approach is not meant to replace the role of trained mental health professionals, but it can provide Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) Tier 1 and 2 for large student populations. An effective initiative of this kind may look like inviting vetted community leaders to come in and offer culturally-tailored support, a resource that’s frequently lacking in schools. When coupled with other solutions, community-based care approaches can play a central role in improving student mental well-being.

Embracing technology

While in-person methods such as professional counseling, peer-to-peer programs, and community-based collaborative care models present a range of benefits, an immediate and ready solution exists for K-12 to effectively close the gaps in its mental health resources: digital mental health products.

Technology is accessible and readily complements care providers, and dozens of culturally competent and evidence-based products are successfully being utilized in school districts. These digital products can complement in-school care providers with treatment plans and access to telehealth, assessment tools, screening, tracking, and preventative technologies, which provide education, awareness, peer support, and other non-clinical approaches.

While effective technology solutions exist, the majority of schools face barriers to adopting and utilizing them. Figuring out how to fund product implementation, choosing which products to trust, and understanding exactly what types of student mental health concerns need to be addressed are common obstacles voiced by school systems.

Proper resource allocation can help ensure a brighter future

While there are currently several mental health-focused technology products available, investment for these types of innovations is still lacking. With federal funding drying up, large VC-backed companies that haven’t previously worked in the education sector are beginning to enter the scene, and oftentimes, these companies are driven by interests that don’t meet the needs of the students they are meant to be serving.

The key to supporting school systems, and ultimately students, is to harness the power of culturally-competent and age-appropriate solutions that entrepreneurs with lived experiences are developing while also supporting school systems by helping them identify, adopt, and utilize these transformative products.

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