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Mental Health Awareness—and Action—Matter

Mental Health Awareness month has an important history. Started in 1949 as a way to raise awareness and reduce the substantial stigma of mental illness that existed mid-century, it has become especially important today amid the unique mental health challenges schools are facing in supporting youth and the educators and school staff who support them.

PresenceLearning has deep experience working closely with schools and school districts across the country to make a difference ensuring that young people have effective mental health solutions. For our contribution to Mental Health Awareness month this May, we are sharing insights, experience, and solutions.

Insights: A Youth Mental Health Crisis

The youth mental health crisis in the United States is not new, but it is as perilous as it’s ever been. A March 2022 study published by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reported significant increases in the number of children diagnosed with mental health conditions, citing “…that between 2016 and 2020, the number of children ages 3–17 years diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent and those with depression by 27 percent. The findings also suggest concerning changes in child and family well-being after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Anxiety, depression, suicide, and self-harm have been on the rise in youth, now exacerbated and made more visible by the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported in October of 2021 that more than 140,000 U.S. children under age 18 lost a primary or secondary caregiver due to COVID-19.

Experience: Schools on the Front Lines

Schools have been on the front lines of this serious challenge. Kelly Wolfe, vice president of strategic partnerships and regulatory compliance for PresenceLearning, explains, “So many schools are under-resourced, and under-staffed. A lot of states and school districts are scrambling to figure out how to identify students at risk, how to address their needs, and how to make sure that they’re doing it in a way that’s going to be beneficial both in the short and in the long term. Currently, there’s an influx of federal dollars, but those are time limited—districts are really wrestling with how they are going to fund any additional programming and any additional providers that they put into the schools once those federal dollars disappear.”

Wolfe identifies another critical challenge to solve: “There’s a lot of momentum right now. We are seeing historic levels of funding, both federal and state, go into supporting additional mental health programs, practitioners, providers, school counselors, and Medicaid reimbursement for services. Everybody’s hyper-focused on children’s mental health. I think part of the struggle is that at a time when we need providers the most, we are also dealing with historic workforce shortages. We just don’t have the providers that we need to go around, and so I think there are huge workforce shortages that need to be addressed, and of course, infrastructure challenges. Schools often are the place where these mental health crises and issues show up.

Educators Are Suffering Too

These historic workforce shortages have had a direct impact on educator mental health and well-being. Schools are seeking solutions for their students, but they also want solutions for the teachers that are shouldering a lot of their students’ mental health issues.

Wolfe points out, “For so long and in so many schools, we have asked educators to not only be teachers, but to be social workers, to be the school nurse, to be the parent, to be all the things to their students, and that’s a lot. We put these expectations on teachers that aren’t appropriate. If we really want to help improve educator mental health, and prevent this resignation that we’re seeing in educators with a lot of teachers leaving the profession, supporting the students will help alleviate that.”

Practical Solutions

Recognizing a profound crisis, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy issued the advisory, Protecting Youth Mental Health, in December 2021. Two critical solutions he recommends for federal, state, local, and tribal governments are:

  • Expand the use of telehealth for mental health challenges.
  • Expand and support the mental health workforce.

States are responding. Ohio recently passed a very expansive telehealth bill that allows for telehealth to cover any related healthcare service. School districts across the country are employing teletherapy as an ongoing solution to successfully solve the critical workforce shortage of mental health practitioners—school psychologists and social workers. With teletherapy, they’re getting students evaluated and into services in a timely way, while at the same time supporting educators’ mental health by reducing the pressure and letting them focus on the job that they were hired to do. For example, the School District of Lee County turned to teletherapy and remote evaluations in order to address their backlog in evaluations and increase capacity for developing students’ coping skills and supporting mental health care.

We wanted to identify the overall impact of this year on kids and plan ahead to get in front of it. The PresenceLearning psychologists we deployed are licensed in Florida and have been trained in our process. They provide the same services as our in-person psychologists, just over the live, online platform. They also give us access to bilingual psychologists.

Amy Clark
Director of psychological and social work services, School District of Lee County, Florida

Looking Ahead

Stephanie Taylor, Ed.S., NCSP, clinical director of psychoeducational services at PresenceLearning, highlights what we need to focus on as we move ahead. Here’s an excerpt from her post, A Student-Centered Solution for Mental Health in Schools.

…there are lots of ways that something could be implemented, and the more flexibility a school has to be able to implement those things, the more successful they will be.

For one, having access to a broader network of people is going to be essential because you’re going to need lots of hands on deck, probably more than a school typically has on staff, and schools are going to need to be able to access those people during the times of day that they need them for these concentrated mental health skills, but maybe they don’t need them the rest of the day so having flexibility in staffing would be a big help for schools.

Second, it will be important to have options for students who are not physically at the school: homeschooled students, hospital and homebound students, etc. There are also a lot of students in virtual schools, and we already know that many are not getting any mental health services because a lot of virtual schools don’t have that built in.

So it is important to have a platform that is engaging and can be used for a lot of different scenarios. It’s important to recognize that some students might need to connect with somebody who they don’t have the opportunity to see in their community. For example, in one scenario all the counselors that are employed at a school might be men and a female student would feel much more comfortable talking to another female. In other scenarios, a student might be very culturally different from the community that they live in and the idea that they could talk to somebody who is culturally similar is essential for establishing trust for some students.

It’s not just about supply and demand of staffing. It is also about how to help students make the best connection with the person they are interacting with and receiving the mental health instruction from.”

Learn More

If your school district is considering online therapy services, innovative staffing solutions, or new approaches to meeting the needs in your school communities, schedule a free consultation today.

Additional Resources

A Student-Centered Solution for Mental Health in Schools, Q&A with Stephanie Taylor, Ed.S., NCSP, clinical director of psychoeducational services at PresenceLearning

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