OPINION: Help kids’ mental health through their schools


February 27, 2023

By Kim Sweet and Dawn Yuster

The pandemic only exacerbated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among youth that were already on the rise. A recent national poll by Effective School Solutions found that 90% of school administrators say the youth mental health crisis is growing.

Derrick was a bright, warm 15-year-old who started experiencing debilitating anxiety and depression, and increasingly avoided going to school. Although his mother desperately tried to find him the mental health care he needed, no one — including his school — was able to help. Eventually, Derrick’s mother called our Education Helpline, where we hear from family after family how difficult it is to find their children the mental health support they need. For children and youth like Derrick, schools provide the best opportunity to connect them with the supports and mental health services they require. Research shows that students are 21 times more likely to seek support for mental health issues at school than at a community-based clinic. According to the School-Based Health Alliance, of students who successfully engage in mental health treatment, more than 70% initiated services through school. Data also indicates that school-based mental health services reduce racial disparities in access to mental health care.

When Mental Health America recently asked young people what mental health supports they need, “access to mental health professionals at school” was among the top resources they requested. This matches what education leaders are saying. In a survey of New York school superintendents since the pandemic, 90% indicated that schools have taken on a larger role in supporting student mental health, and 81% said that schools have become the main source of mental health services for young people. Yet, in response to a survey conducted by Citizens’ Committee for Children of NY during the pandemic, only 42% of young people who reported a need for mental health services said they received them.

At Advocates for Children of New York, we know from our work with thousands of families how crucial school-based behavioral and mental health services are for students, particularly those with significant needs. The right services can mean the difference between healing and learning in school — versus unabated and potentially escalating emotional distress, disrupted learning, removal from class, suspension from school, or even police intervention, including handcuffing and transport to a hospital psychiatric emergency room when medically unnecessary.

We cannot punish or police our way out of our youth mental health crisis. These responses do nothing to address the root causes of student behavior; rather, they reduce the time spent in class learning, and correlate with poor academic outcomes, decreased likelihood of graduating, and increased likelihood of entering the juvenile or criminal legal system.

There are promising solutions, like the innovative interagency initiatives that tap into the richness of community and engage parents, students, and experts as partners. Two such initiatives currently being implemented in NYC merit additional attention and investment:

First, the Mental Health Continuum is a promising model recently highlighted in the NYC Speaks Action Plan. It is the first-ever cross-agency partnership between the Department of Education, NYC Health + Hospitals, and the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to help students struggling with mental health challenges access timely mental health care.

It will support students at 50 high-needs schools through mental health clinics, expedited access to evaluation and treatment, support for crisis response, and culturally responsive family engagement. Unfortunately, the city only allocated funding for the Mental Health Continuum for one year; unless the funding for this critical initiative is extended, it will expire this June — just when it is starting to get off the ground. It is imperative that the city baseline funding for this initiative.

Second, NYC’s new Path program aims to disrupt the historical segregation of Black and Brown students labeled with emotional disabilities in separate special education settings, and instead promote the successful inclusion of these students in schools with their peers without disabilities.

Path includes small class sizes, support from social workers and occupational therapists, trauma-informed practices, and greater collaboration among families and school staff. Even though the city has pledged funding for expansion, Path will be limited to students in early elementary school grades. It should be made accessible to middle and high school students with additional funding.

All signs indicate that it is more urgent than ever that we prioritize the mental health needs of our children and young people. To do so, we must make substantial, sustained investments in creative, collaborative, and community-based models with school-based behavioral and mental health services for students. Our city’s young people are counting on us.

Sweet is executive director of Advocates for Children of New York. Yuster is director of AFC’s School Justice Project.

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