It’s estimated that one in five U.S. youth experience mental illness. Yet less than half of kids with a diagnosable mental health disorder receive mental health treatment. (Some studies put this number as high as 80%.)
The consequences of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness in children are tragic. Over the past two decades, suicide rates have doubled among kids ages 10 to 14, and suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.
What’s more, half of the high school students with mental health issues end up dropping out. Children with mental illness are also at higher risk for developing substance abuse problems in adolescence.
We know that children do better in school when they are well fed and well rested. Good mental health is just as important to kids’ school success, and children who have access to mental health treatment do better academically and socially.
Yet we don’t do a very good job of meeting the mental health needs of school-age children. The Mental Health in Schools Act, introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) in the Senate and Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) in the House, hopes to correct that. It would expand access to mental health services in schools and give kids experiencing mental illness a fair shot at success.
“Addressing the mental and emotional needs of our kids is just as important as keeping them safe from physical injury and illness,” Sen. Franken said, in prepared remarks. “Healthy kids grow into healthy adults, and if we’re able to catch and address mental health issues early, we can help kids become productive members of society.”
Providing mental health services in a natural environment, such as a school, helps to address the issue. Most mental health providers embrace the concept of school-based services, as the benefits of such programs are clear:
- Implementing a school-based mental health program decreases the number of students involved in violent incidents.
- Students referred to a school-based mental health program are far more likely to follow through with treatment than those referred to community mental health centers (96% vs. 13%).
- One school district saw a 95% decrease in discipline referrals among students who received services in school-based clinics.
- A study in Maryland found significant decreases in depression among high school students who received school mental health treatment, with 89% reporting doing “much better/better” since starting treatment.
Not Enough School-based Care
In a time of tight state budgets for education, however, support services like school counselors often end up on the chopping block. While the American School Counselor Association recommends employing one school counselor for every 250 students, the national average is closer to one counselor for every 471 students.
For many children, it’s school-based care or nothing. According to one study, 80% of students receiving mental health services did so only at school.) Without adequate school-based services, children don’t get help in a different setting—their needs simply go unmet.
What the Act Would Do
The Mental Health in Schools Act would fill the gaps in mental health treatment by increasing access to school-based care. The Act would establish a grant program that would:
- Expand access to school-based mental health services in schools
- Support schools that work with community-based organizations to expand access to mental health services for students
- Provide assistance through grants to train staff, volunteers, families, and other members of the community to recognize the signs of behavioral health problems in students and refer them for appropriate services
- Authorize $200 million in grant funding per year over five years
The Act is an expansion of a program already operating in 14 schools in Rep. Napolitano’s district. That program has proven to be tremendously successful in helping students overcome mental health issues and improving quality of life.
Urge your Senators and Representative to support the Mental Health in Schools Act.
Visit the American Counseling Association’ s Public Policy Center to learn more about the Act and contact your members of Congress.
Tell us what you think! Share your comments below:
What services and support are available through the schools in your community?
What results have you experienced from school-based counseling and care?
How might the loss of school-based care affect you and your family?
What are your suggestions to improve services for kids?