How You Can Educate Local and State Officials to Increase School Mental Health Services

Kelly Vaillancourt, PhD, NCSP
Director of Government Relations, National Association of School Psychologists

Last week, Kelly Vaillancourt provided an easy way for you to advocate to members of Congress about providing mental health services in schools. Now, she offers some ideas about how you can effectively interact with local and state officials in order to make meaningful and substantial progress toward increasing access to comprehensive mental health services. Dr. Vaillancourt is director of government relations at the National Association of School Psychologists, which represents over 25,000 school psychologists. These professionals work with students, educators, administrators, and families to support the academic achievement, positive behavior, and mental health of all students, especially those who struggle with barriers to learning. Your voice is critical in helping ensure that all children, youth, and adults have access to the mental and behavioral health services they need and there are many quick and easy ways that you can be an effective advocate. Here, we focus on the ways you can educate and advocate at the local and state levels.

Educate School Boards about Comprehensive Mental Health Supports

  • Identify your local school board members. Review facts about them including involvement in education and with other community organizations. Furthermore, educate yourself on the jurisdiction the school board has over local policy and budget decisions as this can vary across districts and states.
  • Send your school board members an email to let them know you need their support. Offer to be a resource if they have questions about the connection between mental health, school climate, and learning and share relevant research and personal stories. The following resources speak specifically to increasing access to mental health supports:
  • Sign up to speak at your school board meetings. You may team with students, parents, colleagues and school-employed mental health providers (e.g. school counselors and school social workers). This is particularly effective during budget deliberations. Rehearse a brief statement summarizing the importance of comprehensive school mental health services. Make a brief outline of the points you wish to convey. Be concise and present your points in order of importance. Be prepared to relate at least one quick real-life example illustrating how access to school-employed mental health services and supports have directly improved a particular person’s life. To supplement research and data, personal stories tend to have a lasting impact on influential policy makers, such as school board members.
  • Offer to be a local resource person if the member has questions about efforts to promote and protect physical and psychological safety of students.
  • Remember to keep track of your “connections. ”  Keep a record of any contacts that you, your family, or friends may have with school board members. These “connections” help personalize the relationship and will help the elected official have a greater interest in your work.

Educate local and state policy makers about the importance of school and community mental health services.

  • Identify your elected officials. Identify your elected representatives at the local and state level. It may also be helpful to identify their legislative aides whose role includes education and/or mental health issues. For example, your lawmaker’s website may include the contact information for a designated staff member responsible for education and mental health related issues. You may also call their local office to request the appropriate contact person for specific issues.
  • Contact your elected officials. You can make your voice heard by calling, emailing, or setting up an in-person meeting with your elected official or a member of their staff. It is their job to listen to your concerns! Be blunt and ask them to support policies that improve access to school based mental health services. Offer to be a local resource if the legislator has questions about the importance of comprehensive school-based mental health services. Legislators are especially interested in their constituent’s knowledge and like to know professionals they can call upon to discuss specific issues.
  • Coordinate a “call-in day” to promote comprehensive mental health services. It can be very effective to flood the phones of an elected official by organizing a “call in day” where you and your colleagues call an elected official about the same issue. Prepare a brief outline of “talking points” for all participants and target specific legislators for multiple calls.

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Back in the sixties I didn't know it, but I was a high-functioning bipolar. I remember my senior year of high school at Staples H.S. in Westport, CT. Every senior had to write an "author paper" in English class: pick a novelist, read three of his/her books and critique them. I made a brilliant start on my paper on Robert Penn Warren and then had a severe case of "writers block". I never turned in an author paper. I got an F for the quarter and an A the next, which averaged out to a C. What I didn't know until I turned thirty that I probably had a mood swing from mania to depression. In college I had a rollercoaster ride of good semesters and bad semesters I flunked out my second semester. My dad got me an interview with the Dean of Liberal Arts and I talked my way into a second chance. The next two semesters I was on the Deans List, but there were more bad semesters ahead. By the end of my senior I was fifteen credits short of graduating, which I never finished due to my bipolar mood swing. I didn't have a good fit with the college's psychologist and didn't get a diagnosis until age thirty after I'd had many more cycles. I feel if I'd had effective treatment in high school and college I'd have had more success in my academic career and my professional and social life. I've written and learned much in thirty-six years since my diagnosis, bust I still have mood swings. With drugs and a good psychiatrist I've lopped the very highs and very lows. I've learned to cope with them, but I've not achieved anything near my potential I went through a bitter period of "why me?" but I found the proper question to ask is "what can I do with it to help other bipolar sufferers. .