Growing mental health needs
The mental health and emotional impact of COVID-19 on our kids is evident: trauma, depression, substance use and suicidal ideation have all risen in the last two years. The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated our youth’s struggles, but their need for mental health support is not new.
For years, exposure to gun violence, racial tension, political discord, environmental concerns and extreme weather events has steadily intensified in their day-to-day lives. Community traumas like these have profound and lasting impacts on children’s mental health.
Preventative care and safety
For many children, school is the first opportunity we have to support their mental health but most schools lack the necessary resources to adequately provide a comprehensive school mental health system.
While crisis services are an important part of the full continuum of mental health care, experts believe that school-based mental health should be delivered within a multi-tiered system of support. This includes prioritizing school-wide policies and practices that focus on mental health promotion and prevention for all students.
Feelings of loneliness, isolation, anger and despair are much more accurate predictors of violence than a diagnosed mental illness. As such, positive school climates that cultivate healthy relationships between students, staff and the community serve as protective factors to combat these negative emotional states before a crisis occurs.
Disciplinary strategies also play an important role in creating positive school climates.
Behavior resulting from poor mental health, substance use or trauma is too often misidentified as “bad” behavior and punished with classroom removals and school suspensions. However, this type of punitive discipline increases the likelihood of lowered academic performance, antisocial behavior, dropping out and future involvement with the justice system.
By contrast, disciplinary strategies that effectively manage behavior while also supporting students’ academic success and mental well-being include positive behavioral interventions, trauma-informed practices and restorative discipline programs.
School-based mental health will not “identify the next school shooter,” but a focus on preventative care and supportive school environments will positively impact the safety and well-being of every Texas student.
Well-being and academic success
An abundance of research reports that students dealing with trauma, stress or other difficult life events have greater difficulty with concentration, memory, motivation and decision-making. In short, students with poor mental health struggle to succeed in school.
By contrast, students supported by positive school climates benefit in many ways. Not only do their grades, test scores and graduation rates go up, their truancy and disciplinary rates go down.
Mental health struggles also impact students’ behavior in class and their interactions with teachers. When students’ mental wellness is addressed, the school climate is improved for all, including teachers and staff.
In schools that provide support for students’ mental health, teachers report higher rates of job satisfaction and teaching efficacy, healthier classroom environments and student-teacher relationships, and lower levels of stress.
Championing school-wide practices that support mental health and well-being throughout the school is vital during a time of dire teacher workforce challenges.
An imperative to act
According to the Texas School Safety Center, “creating a positive school climate that promotes academic engagement, connection to the community and encourages meaningful relationships among peers and educators can not only reduce violent behaviors, but can also help students recover from the psychological trauma that these instances of violence may inflict.”
Children today are facing many challenges to their safety and success. The task of addressing these challenges is considerable and the solutions are not simple. But there are effective strategies for creating safe and supportive learning environments for every student.
It is imperative that Texas promotes and financially invests in these strategies.
According to The Collaborative Task Force on Public School Mental Health Services created in response to the Santa Fe High School shooting, “there is no dedicated state funding allocated to school districts specifically for the provision of school-based mental health services.”
Texas can support its schools by:
- Directing dedicated funding to school districts for school-based mental health services and school climate strategies by creating a school mental health allotment that allows school districts the flexibility to fund what works for their students.
- Requiring the Texas Education Agency to collect data on how the dedicated funds are spent annually.
- Allowing school districts to enroll as Medicaid providers in the SHARS program to receive reimbursement for providing behavioral health services to any student eligible for Medicaid.
- Addressing schools’ code of conduct to better support school mental health, including data collection to increase transparency of student removals.
For more information, contact:
Shannon Hoffman, MSW, MPAff, LCDC
Policy Program Specialist
Alison Mohr Boleware, LMSW
Director of Policy