As schools reopen, we must not forget about students’ mental health

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As schools look towards fully reopening and returning to a semblance of normalcy, it is crucial that the mental health of students is made a priority. 

Even before the pandemic, the mental health needs of students were often not met. Now, the pandemic has thrown a massive wrench into America’s education system. COVID-19 has greatly interrupted education for every child in America, students are suffering and their mental health is on the decline. 

Much coverage has been focused on challenges surrounding remote teaching and students falling behind in terms of coursework and learning. As administrators address learning loss, it is essential that they simultaneously attend to and invest in student wellbeing. Learning recovery will not occur unless we support students’ mental health. 

School is without a doubt the prime environment to invest in prevention and early intervention for mental illness. This is so vital because we know that half of all mental illness presents before age 14. And in 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for ages 12 to 18 and college-age youth. Early identification and intervention leads to recovery from mental illness and saves lives.  

The pandemic has worsened the state of youth mental health with disrupted learning patterns, increased social isolation and less access to support. In 2020, there was a 24 percent increase in emergency room visits for mental health reasons for kids aged 5 through 11 and more than a 30 percent increase for kids between ages 12 and 17. We must act to change these patterns and to provide youth with the services they need. 

Only 12 percent of youth who need help receive any services to address their mental health and/or substance use concerns. Investments in prevention and early intervention with children and adolescents pay immediate dividends and also create significant savings down the line. Evidence-based prevention and early intervention programs can increase vital, often lifesaving, help-seeking behavior.

School mental health programs also present an opportunity to learn when students are in adverse or abusive situations and provide resources to find safety and healing. Children and adolescents are more likely to receive needed mental health care in their school than in any other setting. Schools offer a more accessible, less stigmatizing environment than traditional community-based mental health settings.

Without question, we need urgent investments in prevention and early intervention to give every child in America a chance for a hopeful, healthy future.

A coalition of organizations launched the Hopeful Futures Campaign in May to ensure comprehensive mental systems in every school in America.  

The core components of a successful comprehensive school mental health system are straightforward, common sense and can be implemented by administrators across the country.

Schools need early identification to identify problems and connect students to needed services and supports through regular screening and referral to accessible care. They need school-based mental health services that offer accessible, multi-tiered mental health supports and services including age-appropriate mental health education for all students. They need trained educators, staff and mental health professionals to provide support from assessment to treatment. Finally, schools need school-community partnerships that work collaboratively to create pathways to ensure the delivery of comprehensive mental health supports and services. 

There is a massive opportunity here to change the narrative around mental health support in schools as we reopen — it is deeply important that we make that commitment.

Sharon Hoover  is the co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland. Bill Smith is the founder of Inseparable, a mental health nonprofit.

Tags coronavirus lockdowns Learning Mental health school reopenings student mental health student wellbeing

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