10 Reasons Schools Should Have Youth Mental Health Services On-Site
Nearly 20 percent of youth in the United States experience a mental, emotional or behavioral health condition every year. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of those kids do not receive any kind of mental health services. The reasons are varied: Social stigma, high costs, lack of insurance, and school staff and parents who may lack recognition and awareness of symptoms. Without diagnosis and treatment, mental health conditions can affect a student’s performance and ability to learn and grow.
As school-based mental health practitioners with Wilder Community Health and Wellness, we work closely with Saint Paul and East Metro area school staff, students and families. From our collective experience, we believe one of the best ways to provide youth with mental health services is by serving them right where they actually spend their day. Here are the top ten reasons and examples of why schools should have on-site mental health services:
1. Schools are a natural setting, where the kids already are.
Clinics, on the other hand, can feel awkward and sterile. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
Four of my clients are in the same classroom. There’s so much stress in the room all day long. Knowing firsthand what my students are experiencing helps me as a therapist. I don’t know how I could do therapy without knowing how it feels in their world.
2. Families will have direct, convenient access.
Treatments like therapy become more helpful when they are not a burden on families and parents juggling so much of life already. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
I have a student whose family is experiencing homelessness. The student has been living in a shelter. My student often misses the van to take him to school, and I have sometimes provided transportation for my student. I’ve also met with the family at the shelter and at their cousin's home. By developing strong, authentic relationships, parents may feel more connected and interested in healing themselves, too.
3. We can reduce the effects of toxic stress and trauma in students' lives.
Our schools and other systems are not fully equipped to catch and hold the effects of our kids’ stress and trauma. Having mental health treatment in schools gives kids a space to drop off the weight of that stress, which is more healing than asking their bodies to carry it. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
We see when students are having stressful days. The effects of stress show in their bodies. I check in with students and find space for them to deal with stressors at home and then deal with stress at school, from peers swearing to stressed out teachers and more. Adolescence is hard! I tell them, “Come on in and dump it in here. This is your time.”
4. Overall staff knowledge of signs and symptoms of distress will increase.
Having a mental health professional on school grounds can help develop staff understanding of distressed student behavior. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
A student talked about how she can’t concentrate in school. Previously, she might have been labeled as someone who just didn’t care enough to do her work. Instead, with increased understanding of mental wellness, the school and family created a plan to address the student’s underlying anxiety.
5. Teachers will gain tools and techniques to promote emotional support and well-being for themselves and their students.
On-site access to a mental health professional’s recommendations will be beneficial for the health and calm of students and adults alike in schools. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
Many staff members in schools receive a one-time training on trauma. After the training, school-based mental health therapists continue to offer insights about the experiences of specific students. For example, with a therapist, a teacher may learn that a child’s behavior may have changed because they recently witnessed domestic violence. With that knowledge, a teacher might say, “That makes sense. Based on that, I understand there’s stuff they can’t do right now. Can you help me identify what they CAN do?”
6. Bringing on a mental health professional in school can help destigmatize mental health.
It will be another helpful resource for kids and families when they need it, just as important as the support provided by teachers, administrators, nurses, lunch staff, custodians and bus drivers in the school community. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
A 13-year-old girl told me she always thought that therapy meant ‘special ed.’ I told her: “I’m just here to support you. I’m a person who can hear your story and allow you to be seen. We all need good mental health supports. The school is filled with people who care about us in different ways. Nothing is wrong with you.”
7. Hardship does not discriminate, and neither should help for mental health.
Offering mental health services to all children, parents and families through direct access at schools is an excellent opportunity to improve emotional stability and increase health equity for everyone. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
Two of my clients were teenage girls who were experiencing homelessness and were not living with their parents. Without school-based mental health, they would not have been able to work through the trauma and stressors of the experience. School based mental health is available to students regardless of socioeconomic status, insurance or the ability to pay.
8. Schools can play a major role in early childhood intervention.
It is common for adults to seek help for mental health conditions that have been impacting them since childhood. Early intervention reduces symptoms and changes children’s lives earlier than later. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
A client’s mother told me that she had been raped as a child. As a young person, the mother had nowhere to go for help. The mother told me she wishes she would have had someone in school with whom she could have talked, not to fix her but to hear her story.
9. Intensive, individualized support can also be provided to small groups of children with high emotional and/or behavioral needs.
Having on-site mental health support to address a variety of children’s needs can relieve the large percentage of time required from staff to support the entire school population and hundreds of children and families every day. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist says:
I worked with a teenage student who had a significant history of trauma. Her bedroom didn’t feel safe to her anymore. She asked me, ‘Am I broken?’” I told her, ‘You have a story and it deserves to be heard. You can share it with me. You don’t have to keep it for yourself alone. Using trauma-focused therapy, we wrote her story in two versions. The first version was raw and painful. She called it ‘the old me.” The second version was her power narrative. She picked out the parts of her that survived and were strong and she redefined herself. She asked me to print her power story for her. “I need to frame that and hang it in my bedroom,” she said. “I need my room to be safe for me again.”
10. It can help families navigate the mental health system.
Acronyms, procedures and a spectrum of services like case management, psychiatry and day treatment can feel overwhelming for parents and school staff. An on-site mental health professional can make it manageable to get help by serving as a system and referral resource for the school community. A Wilder school-based mental health therapist who works with Hmong families says:
Sometimes students and families have been hesitant about receiving mental health services due to their misunderstanding about having a diagnosis, or having their own stigma about mental health. Sharing the same cultural background ensures an accurate understanding and translation to provide culturally responsive approaches that bridges the gap between suffering and healing.
These are just ten of the plenty of reasons for schools to house mental health services and professionals. Parents and families can greatly benefit from the convenience, ease of access and targeted care that would be available equally for all children. Additionally, it would provide existing school staff with the much-needed support and in-house expertise to learn from in order to properly assess, diagnose and treat children and adolescents through early intervention and increased awareness of mental health concerns. By prioritizing the emotional and behavioral well-being of youth and providing on-site services and resources, schools can play a major role in destigmatizing and normalizing mental health care and access in our communities.