Making Mental Health a Priority in Schools

The long-standing challenge of accessing mental health care is growing more and more insurmountable. Between identifying the need for support and finding and securing care, the average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is 8 to 10 years. The pandemic has only made matters worse. The impacts of a year in isolation on children’s mental health has been profound. Since the start of the pandemic, mental health-related emergency department visits are up 24 percent for children and 31 percent for adolescents. Children looking for care are waiting months for appointments and children in crisis are boarding in emergency departments for longer than ever before.

Mental health providers cannot keep up with the demand for services and supporting young people during this time requires a whole community response.

Schools can, and do, play a significant role addressing this challenge. First, schools are critical for screening and prevention—it’s the only place that nearly all school-aged young people go on a daily basis and where students in need of support can be proactively identified. The majority of students who do receive mental health treatment do so in schools. And research finds that students are much more likely to complete treatment when it is offered in schools.

Addressing students’ mental health needs, especially as they return to school after the challenges of the past year, is a significant responsibility that can stress the capacity of schools and educators. We can’t expect teachers to take on the role of a therapist or ask schools to take the place of mental health providers. But now more than ever, it is critical that schools have effective systems and structures in place to make it possible to support students.

That’s why we’ve teamed up with the Massachusetts School Mental Health Consortium, the BRYT (Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition) program of the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to launch Thriving Minds. Through a series of learning opportunities, Thriving Minds provides teachers, school mental health professionals, and school and district leaders with guidance and support to prepare for the next year and beyond.

Throughout the spring and summer, Thriving Minds has offered free professional development workshops on the fundamental components of a comprehensive school mental health system—data, interventions, and infrastructure. Workshops have focused on a range of topics including screening and initial assessment, using cognitive behavioral therapy with students, establishing systems and practices to support sustainable services, and developing a shared commitment to racial equity in school mental health.

There is still one week left in Thriving Minds’ summer series. Next week’s workshops will look at racial equity and collective care in school mental health. You can register now to join any of the three remaining workshops, which focus on defining equity in school mental health, using data to advance equity in mental health, and reclaiming a sense of community, belonging, and connection.

Going forward, Thriving Minds plans to offer more in-depth professional development workshops and expand to offer individualized support for school teams wishing to do more. Plans include creating ongoing learning cohorts with school teams from different districts engaged in similar work so that they can learn from and support one another, with facilitation and guidance from Thriving Minds. We also plan to create a coaching institute to guide school staff dedicated to overseeing the shift toward a comprehensive school mental health system.

Early identification and treatment of mental health conditions is effective and can help students thrive in school. As we reexamine our schools and our society in the wake of COVID-19, we hope to help create the systems and structures that make mental health a priority.