Education News

School Mental Health Professionals: strengthening community connections, boosting student outcomes

by Libby Nealis, NEA Healthy Futures

Observing May as Mental Health Awareness Month offers advocates the opportunity to stress that mental health is as important as physical health to children’s quality of life, directly impacting their learning and development. President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation to spread the word of Mental Health Awareness Month and continue the national dialogue that his administration initiated in 2013, following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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More than simply the absence of mental illness, mental health also means possessing the skills needed to cope with life’s many challenges. As such, it directly impacts children’s learning and development. Struggling with a mental health problem, such as depression, or feeling overwhelmed by academic, social, or family pressures severely limits children’s ability to learn and grow. [i] Students, families, and communities thrive when schools meet the needs of the whole child—fostering social-emotional skills and identifying and preventing mental health problems early.

To kick off Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week on Capitol Hill, Representative Grace Napolitano (D-CA), sponsored a legislative briefing titled The Importance of School-Based Mental Health Programs. Napolitano has reintroduced the bipartisan Mental Health in Schools Act (H.R. 1211) to increase support for school mental health services as part of ESEA. At the briefing, Kana Enomoto, Principal Deputy Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) declared that, “Schools have an obligation to create healthy environments for children, where protective factors such as social connectedness are supported, and risk factors such as community violence are mitigated.”

childrens-mental-health-awareness-day-2015-web-banner-400x400More work needs to be done to educate the staff and Members of the House of Representatives of the importance of school mental health services. The House ESEA bill, H.R. 5, the Student Success Act, eliminates the school counseling program and strips the provisions from current law supporting school mental health services.

During the April 2015 Senate HELP Committee consideration of its ESEA legislation, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, Senator Al Franken (D-MN), a longtime champion of school mental health services, offered an amendment to reinstate the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program (ESSCP) which had been eliminated in the earlier Alexander/Murray compromise agreement. Thanks to Franken’s support, a favorable vote by all Democrats on the Committee and three Republican Senators [Murkowski (AK), Kirk (IL), and Hatch (UT)], the language of the school counseling program will remain an authorized federal program.

The ESSCP was authorized and expanded to secondary schools during the last ESEA reauthorization that led to the No Child Behind Act. This grant program, intended to expand school mental health programs with school counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers, has been successfully administered by the Department of Education since the 1990’s. The most recent grant announcement made just last week. In fact, the Department receives so many applications for this program, an average of 300 to 400 applications for only 60-70 possible awards, that it only re-competes the grant every other year.

Schools offer an ideal context for prevention, intervention, positive development, and regular communication between school staff and families. “School social workers in Minnesota are also training staff and families about the early warning signs of mental health issues and barriers to learning,” says Education Minnesota member, Christy McCoy, School Social Worker at Agape High School in St. Paul. Also President of the Minnesota School Social Work Association (MSSWA), McCoy says, “Our district leaders have begun to recognize the value of having qualified professionals available to identify students and families in need of services and providing these important mental health services in their schools.”

NEAHF_brand1-300x200School-employed mental health professionals also strengthen the connections among community resources and service providers. But “Current levels of both school-employed and community-based mental-health providers are grossly inadequate. Many of us are only able to serve children with the most intense needs, with little time to engage in critical prevention and early-intervention services” argues Stephen E. Brock, President of the National Association of School Psychologists and H. Thomas Brant, in a recent Education Week commentary, Four Ways to Improve Student Mental-Health Support.

School mental health services are included within NEA’s Opportunity Dashboard and as a critical component of a comprehensive approach to safe and successful schools. Strengthening school health and mental health programs should be included within the guidance and best practices promoted by any education reforms that seek to promote positive student outcomes and life-long success. NEA Healthy Futures is working to promote greater awareness of students’ mental health needs and support schools and communities in strengthening these services.

Join NEA Healthy Futures on Twitter at @NEAHealthy in promoting May as Mental Health Month – Children’s #MentalHealthMatters in ESEA #OpportunityforAll #MHM2015

[i] National Association of School Psychologists. (n.d.). Removing barriers to learning and improving student outcomes: The importance of school based mental health services. Bethesda, MD: Author. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/press/removingbarriers.pdf

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