School-based mental-health services can have a tremendous impact

April 1, 2018 | By Jeffery Rauschert

There are several ground-breaking programs throughout the country that are making a real difference in the mental health of our children.

They are not office- or hospital-based as tradition would demand. Instead, these services are based in the schools.

A recent Oregon study showed that schools that have mental health services available to students and families have a 26 percent reduction in suicidal ideation, and a 32 percent reduction in suicide attempts among their students. I am not aware of any other intervention that can make such a difference in such a far-reaching way.

The benefits of school-based mental health services are:

— Most emotional issues respond best to intensive therapy during the peak time of symptoms. Since children spend six to eight hours in school a day, school is the best place to provide consistent, timely therapy.

— Children and teens can “self-refer,” meaning they can access care just by walking into an office and asking for help. Guardians are not always aware of how much a child is suffering; they often hide it well. School-based services allow children to access care when they need it.

— School often proves to be a great source of stress for many youths. Academic pressures, bullying and conflicts with other students often begin at school. Therapies offered where the problem began can be more easily tailored to allow all parties involved a chance to receive help and to enact real solutions that are supported by actions.

— Parents typically know where their child’s school is and how to get there, creating a familiarity that fosters better support of parental involvement in care and counseling.

— In school-based mental health centers, academic adjustments due to disabilities, anxiety or other concerns can be made quickly and easily when deemed appropriate.

— Counselors and professionals who staff these centers become part of the school community. In many of these centers they do schoolwide mental wellness initiatives such as mindfulness and motivational exercises. This school community presence helps to break down the stigma of mental illness and mental health support.

— Teachers who are unsure of how to help a student, or how to diffuse a situation can get instant help from the professionals that know best. Teacher education and support is a very important concept for improving student mental health.

The biggest obstacle
Reducing suicide attempts by 32 percent is all it takes to convince me that we need more collaborative mental health care in our schools. However, suicide prevention is only one way that children benefit from these services. The list above makes it clear this is a beneficial use of resources.

The biggest obstacle to this concept is funding.

Most schools that currently have these type of programs fund them with temporary grants, or through collaboration with health care systems or mental health providers. Since I am very confident that these services would reduce health care costs overall, we need to investigate how Pennsylvania could support these services permanently. Collaboration will be needed, as will leaders who make this a priority.

Recent current events support that the students of our county, our state and our country are going to stand up for each other. Here is a way we can stand up for them and with them. The media is full of people demanding that we begin to do more to help the mental health of our youth. Here is a solution that works. Time to get started.