The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of many children and adolescents and reduced students’ access to comprehensive school mental health systems (CSMHS) as schools shifted to remote learning.
In recent years, states have implemented policies that have successfully expanded access to CSMHS. Lessons learned from these initiatives can help address students’ growing mental health needs and may help reduce states’ health care costs by decreasing mental health-related emergency department visits, which have escalated during the pandemic.
The availability of a comprehensive behavioral health system is critical to a child’s health and well-being. Nearly 17 percent of children and adolescents have a mental health condition, yet almost half of these children do not receive needed treatment. This is more pronounced among children and youth who are Black, Latinx, and come from other racial and ethnic minority groups, which disproportionately face barriers to accessing quality mental health care. These disparities have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. A lack of regular, accessible mental health programs, services, and supports may lead to greater use of emergency departments, which are costlier and often lack appropriate policies to serve children with mental health needs, such as how to transition children and adolescents to other services and provide appropriate care coordination.
Schools are a primary source of mental health services for children and have been shown to improve students’ access to mental health programs, services, and supports. This is true for an increasing number of students, as the percentage of adolescents receiving mental health services and supports in educational settings has grown from 12 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2019.
A CSMHS approach is a best practice identified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Schools can use this approach to support:
- Prevention of mental health needs among all students;
- Early identification of students and intervention for those who are at risk; and
- Services and treatment for those who have mental health needs.
A CSMHS also supports adherence to treatment, decreased stigma, and improved educational attainment. Implementing and expanding a CSMHS may also help to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in school responses to students’ behavior by encouraging mental health services over punishment. Children and youth with mental health needs who are Black and Latinx are more likely to receive punishment instead of mental health care services in comparison to White children.
A CSMHS is one component of a system of care for children and youth with special health care needs (CYSHCN) and behavioral health needs, and can be considered within a broader framework of policies to support mental health of children and adults.
There are a variety of federal initiatives that support state efforts to develop and expand these critical school programs, including:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH) provides funding at state and local levels to promote health and well-being through schools, including programs and services to support students’ mental health;
- SAMHSA’s Project Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education (AWARE) provides funding to state education agencies to partner with state mental health agencies to increase awareness of mental health in schools, provide training to school staff, and connect students with behavioral health needs to services; and
- The School-Based Mental Health Services Grant Program, authorized by the 2020 Department of Education budget, provides $10 million to six states to increase the number of mental health service providers in schools.
The Biden Administration has underscored the importance of behavioral health services for students by setting a goal to double the number of mental health professionals in schools. The day after his inauguration, President Biden issued an executive order stating that the federal government will support states in promoting mental health and social-well-being in schools, and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 that was signed into law in March 2021 allocates more than $120 billion in grants to states through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The majority of this funding will be distributed to local education agencies, which could use these subgrants to provide mental health services and supports and to implement interventions that address learning loss while responding to students’ emotional needs, among other purposes.
State Policy Considerations
Schools have adapted to shifting priorities over the past year and continue to implement innovative strategies to meet students’ growing mental health needs. During the pandemic, several states have introduced legislation to support schools in various ways to enhance their mental health programs during and after the pandemic.
- Implementing statewide task forces. Schools face a variety of barriers to developing CSMHSs for students, including allocating adequate funding, adhering to data privacy regulations, and identifying and implementing best practices. To support school districts’ diverse needs, states are forming committees to review existing approaches and make recommendations to improve mental health programs. This process may be particularly helpful to identify and address emerging challenges and strategies during and after COVID-19.
In 2017, North Carolina created the Superintendent’s Working Group on Student Health and Well-Being to produce recommendations to support students’ mental health, which were released in a report in May 2018. In October 2020, Illinois introduced legislation that would create a similar mental health task force consisting of mental health providers, school nurses, state General Assembly members, school board members, principals, parents, and students to produce recommendations in 2021.
- Developing mental health policies in schools. Clear policies at the state and local level can support comprehensive, consistent, and appropriate approaches to addressing students’ mental health needs in schools. State policies can provide guidance for local school districts regarding expectations and best practices, while allowing flexibility for schools to meet their students’ specific needs while considering the local context.
On June 8, 2020, North Carolina enacted SL 2020-7 S476, which implemented recommendations from the state task force. This law requires the Department of Public Instruction to adopt a statewide, school-based mental health policy, and requires each school to adopt its own policy following task force recommendations.
- Supporting universal screening practices. Widespread screening for children’s behavioral health needs is a recommended best practice. While schools have a unique opportunity to screen a high proportion of their students for behavioral health needs, less than 15 percent of schools have implemented a universal screening process. States are supporting schools by issuing recommendations for schools to increase mental health screening among students and guidance for funding for these services.
New Mexico requires in its administrative code that schools screen all students for health and well-being, including behavioral health needs. The state has developed guidance on funding sources for screening services, which may include operational funds, Title I and Title III funds, and Coordinated Early Intervening Services funding through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In January 2020, New Jersey introduced legislation that would require schools to provide annual depression screening for students in grades seven through twelve.
- Expanding the availability of mental health services in schools. Few schools meet the recommended student-to-staff ratios for counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers due to a lack of funding and workforce shortages. States are enhancing CSMHSs through policies that provide funding to increase the availability of mental health professionals in schools and support partnerships with community-based behavioral health agencies.
Washington, D.C. has made significant efforts to support the expansion of behavioral health services to all students by earmarking local and federal funding and increasing funding over time for schools to develop partnerships with community-based mental health services. In October 2020, New Jersey introduced legislation that would require all public school districts to have at least one school counselor and to meet a maximum student-to-school counselor ratio of 250 to 1 – the national recommended ratio.
- Improving mental health training and education. School staff who are frequently in contact with students are an important resource to support students’ mental health. States are providing guidance and support to train these staff to identify indicators of mental health needs among students and facilitate appropriate referrals. States also advise on school curricula and education that support mental health awareness among students.
North Carolina’s SL 2020-7 S476 requires the state’s mental health policy to include a model mental health training program for school staff that local school districts must adopt. All school staff who work with students in grades K-12 must be trained in youth mental health, suicide prevention, and other mental health-related topics. Pennsylvania introduced similar legislation in September 2020 that requires schools to train school staff in identifying signs of depression and referring students and their families to mental health services.
Comprehensive school mental health systems are an important component of systems of care for CYSHCN and behavioral health needs. The National Standards for Systems of Care for CYSHCN, which were developed by a national work group of state and national health policy leaders, is a valuable resource that states can use to guide improvements to systems of care for CYSHCN, including considerations for mental health systems. States can implement systems based on the following standards to improve care for CYSHCN during and after COVID-19, including:
- Improve mental health care access, especially for marginalized communities;
- Increase the use of medical homes serving individuals with chronic and complex conditions;
- Improve coordination of care across behavioral health, social and health systems; and
- Improve access to CSMHS.
Schools have played an important role in supporting students’ mental health, but often face challenges in implementing CSMHS. Mental health needs among children and adolescents have been rising for several years, and this trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic. One way that states can address this is through policies that strengthen CSMHS to support students during and after the pandemic. The National Academy for State Health Policy will continue to track state policies that support CSMHSs during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.