Advocating for School Mental Health Services within State Policy

By: Katie Eklund, NASP Government and Professional Relations Chair

It has been estimated that at least 20% of children demonstrate some type of mental health concern warranting intervention (Burns et al., 1995; Costello at al., 2003). This translates to 1 out of every 5 students in our public schools requiring some type of mental health intervention throughout their school trajectory. As a result, teachers and school staff often turn to school-employed mental health providers for help. This includes school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors.

The challenge for many schools, districts, and states is that our schools are woefully understaffed. Many states do not have enough mental health providers to meet the demand of student mental health concerns within schools. The reasons are plentiful, but often include a lack of awareness about the need for mental health concerns, diminished school funding to provide mental health services, or an inability to find a mental health provider to fill vacant positions. All of these issues have led to a dearth of school-employed mental health providers.

Fortunately, many states are beginning to address these disparities by advocating for mental health literacy within the classroom and identifying solutions to hire more school-employed mental health professionals. For example, Florida Senator Bill Nelson has filed a bill to hire more mental health professionals in schools around the country, such as hiring school psychologists and social workers into areas where they are needed most. This bill includes (a) making federal grants available to universities that partner with low-income school districts to train mental health professionals, and (b) student loan forgiveness programs for professionals who work in high-need school districts. His proposed legislation included information from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) whereby each state should work to improve the student to school psychologist ratios to align with the national recommended ratio of 1:700.

Other states, such as New York and Virginia, have enacted laws requiring mental health education in schools. Both states have a focus on implementing mental health awareness into health and physical education curriculum. Under the new law, health education in New York "must recognize the multiple dimensions of health and include the relationship of physical and mental health, according to the New York State Department of Education. Much of the impetus behind these bills is that increased awareness among students and staff will lead to improved access to services for students, as well as an increase in the availability of mental health services.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (funded under the US Department of Health Human Services), has worked tirelessly over the past few years to expand mental health literacy training through multiple programs, including Project AWARE and a newer grant focused on Mental Health Awareness Training. These funding streams are designed to begin to address the gap between unmet mental health needs and access to a qualified mental health service provider. Using strategies such as training teachers and school professionals on mental health literacy and creating partnerships between school and community mental health providers, initial data suggests these projects have led to an increase in the number of students who are identified and referred for needed mental health services.

School psychologists are encouraged to contact their local elected officials to identify strategies that could help bolster support for mental health policies and procedures within their communities. Local, state, and national level efforts are needed to continue to expand services and support to some of our most at-risk students!