Mental Health Challenges Facing K-12 Schools
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In recognition of mental health as one of the most important pieces of school safety today, we asked Safe and Sound advisors, Dr. Melissa Reeves and Dr. Stephen Brock to weigh in on what they see in our K-12 schools today.
Safe and Sound Schools: Drs. Reeves and Brock, what are the top 5 mental health issues and themes you see in our K-12 schools currently?
Drs. Reeves and Brock: It’s difficult to pick just 5, but these make up a great deal of the mental health work we are seeing in the field of K-12 School Safety today.
Two key mental health challenges our schools are facing are:
1. Suicidal ideation and behavior among students.
According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the CDC, rates have significantly increased since 2008 (after over a decade of decline). Nineteen states have passed laws requiring suicide prevention education for educators, the most recent being California. On September 26, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2246 which requires all schools serving students from grades 7 to 12 to adopt comprehensive suicide prevention policies (that address suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention).
2. Increased anxiety due to demands and social pressures.
Academic demands continue to increase and students are feeling the pressures to take more challenging classes. Social pressures, the constant comparisons to others via social media, and readily available access to information for which children and youth may not be ready to comprehend and process, are all contributing to higher levels of anxiety. Schools are beginning to teach students anxiety management strategies to better cope with these stressors.
On the positive side, these are three trends we see schools taking to address mental health in schools:
1. Integration of mental wellness into the curriculum.
Social emotional learning (SEL) programs not only help to keep our young people psychologically well, they have been shown to improve academic performance and decrease referrals for negative behaviors.
2. Prompt identification and treatment of mental illness.
Half of all lifetime cases of mental illnesses emerge during the school years (by age 14). The school environment is the perfect setting for early identification. Universal mental wellness screenings should become as common as vision and hearing screenings.
3. Increasing mental health services and staffing in schools.
Research shows that mental health treatment compliance increases 21 times when it is provided in a school vs. in a community setting. School-employed mental health professionals can work directly with students to learn social-emotional skills that increase social competence and academic achievement, and decrease mental health challenges.
Dr. Reeves is President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools. Dr. Brock is the former President of NASP and speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools.