Home / Education / Articles / What role do schools play in addressing youth mental health?

Children and teens across America are struggling with their mental health, and the problem, including the amount of youth with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, is getting worse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Twenty-eight percent of students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2011. In 2021, 42% of students reported these feelings. The percentage of male students experiencing these feelings increased from 21% in 2011 to 29% in 2021. For female students, percentages rose from 36% in 2011 to 57% in 2021, according to a 2021 CDC survey.

Multiple government agencies have identified schools as important places of support when it comes to providing mental health resources to children and teens. So what resources do they offer, how equipped are they to offer this support, and what’s stopping them from doing more?

Do schools need to address student mental health?

In 2022, 76% of public schools reported an increase in staff “expressing concerns about student depression, anxiety, and other disturbances since the start of the pandemic.”

This is according to a survey done in April 2022 by the Institute of Education Sciences, which conducts research on behalf of the Department of Education. The study represents a national sample of elementary, middle, high, and combined-grade public schools.

The survey found that 69% of all public schools also reported an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services from school since the start of the pandemic. Schools in the suburbs and schools with more than 1,000 students reported the largest increases at 77% and 87%, respectively.

How do schools address mental health?

The most common mental health services provided by schools are individual-based intervention (84% of public schools), case management (69%), external referrals (66%), group-based intervention (56%), and a needs assessment (53%).

Schools expanded mental health support efforts during the pandemic, the most common action taken being to encourage staff to address student social and emotional well-being and mental health. Schools also offered professional development opportunities to teachers on how to help struggling students.

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How is teachers’ mental health?

Since the start of the pandemic, 29% of public schools say that more school staff are requesting mental health services from the school. Mirroring the trend with students, the increases were largest in suburban schools (33%) and schools with 1,000 students or more (44%).

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What’s keeping schools from doing more about mental health?

Sixty-seven percent of public schools increased the type or amount of mental health services they provided since the pandemic, with 74% of suburban schools, the highest, and 60% of rural schools, the lowest, reporting they did so.

But 31% of public schools moderately or strongly disagreed that they were able to provide mental health support to all students in need. Of the 56% that did believe their school could provide this support, 13% strongly agreed they could do so.

The top blockers to schools providing additional mental health services were insufficient mental health professional staff coverage to manage caseload, reported by 61% of all public schools, inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals (57%), and inadequate funding (47%).

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The data shows that students and teachers are seeking help from their schools. But with the rate of mental health struggles worsening, the existing interventions are insufficient to stabilize this rate, let alone improve it.

If you are struggling with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and many other conditions, call the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), a free, confidential, 24/7, year-round treatment referral and information service. If you are thinking about harming yourself or attempting suicide, tell someone who can help immediately and call 911 immediately.

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Last updated
July 2023
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