States lack careful mental health policies for students

States lack careful mental health policies for students

(District of Columbia) While there is evidence that schools are doing more to address student mental health issues, new research suggests that state oversight often fails to keep up with its role in coordinating and facilitating care.

A report published this month in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies by a team from the University of Nevada looked at how state policy across the nation determines the capacity and the types of services provided to K-12 students in crisis, and if there are better ways to manage the system.

The answer is yes.

It is likely that school districts are already providing services beyond the scope of state policies in many communities, the authors said, which means that local officials—and not state policymakers—are making high-value decisions about when to bring in mental health experts within the government.

“The results of this study indicate that states have policies to assist students and families in accessing mental health services; however, these policies outline different agencies responsible for providing services, differing locations of those services, and differing capacity of services that are available,” the Nevada report said.

Mental disorders among children have emerged in recent years as a major public health issue in the U.S. that impacts as much of 20 percent of the K-12 population each year—or about 10 million children.

Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among adolescents age 12 to 17 while the cost of care—which includes special education, juvenile justice and decreased productivity—is approaching $250 billion annually, according to a 2013 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thus, it is critical that that services for youth in crisis are aligned between schools, county agencies, law enforcement and community groups.

While the Nevada study concluded that school officials are being more responsive to student needs, there are big variations nationally in how state policies address the problem.

“Even with the increased recognition of the need for mental health supports throughout state policies, there exists a large variation in how states address these issues on school campuses,” the report said.

Among the recommendations:

  • States should make sure that mental health service providers are notified early by schools when student problems become apparent. While many states have systems in place for screening of possible mental health issues, there is not the same emphasis that the experts in providing that care are contacted.
  • All teachers or other school personnel that work with students suspected as having emotional behavior problems need to be aware of all the service options available because, typically, they are on the front line of identification.
  • Schools need to have a specific point person designated to coordinate interaction between outside experts and on-campus services. The candidate, which could be a counselor, school social worker or school psychologist, would act to ensure that educational professionals consistently are aware of services being provided and eliminate barriers.