Resources and questions to help LEAs improve access to mental health supports

A September brief by The Education Trust, “How Mental Health Supports Impact Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD),” lays out how local educational agencies can implement mental health supports at the local level.

Schools are increasingly offering wraparound services and interventions to address students’ social-emotional needs and overall well-being, especially in the wake of the pandemic, which brought the youth mental health crisis centerstage and highlighted the disparities in access to supports among young people.

Schools are also often a student’s primary provider of mental health resources and play a key role in detecting mental health issues.

Underserved groups such as students of color, students with disabilities and those from low-income backgrounds are more likely to lack access to critical services than their peers.

Individual-based interventions like one-on-one counseling or therapy, case management or coordinating mental health services and referrals for outside care are the most commonly available offerings at schools, according to the brief. Though providing mental health screenings for all students is best practice, it is less commonplace.

Adopting a Multi-Tiered System of Supports framework, training educators to recognize signs of distress in students and how to support students from diverse backgrounds, and creating emotionally supportive, culturally affirming school environments have also proven effective.

“Students who have access to high-quality, holistic mental health supports in schools are not only healthier physically but are also more likely to graduate from high school and successfully complete postsecondary education,” the brief states.

Steps at the local level

A toolkit is available from Alliance for Resource Equity, created in partnership between The Education Trust and Education Resource Strategies, that includes a diagnostic tool to identify areas that could use growth in an LEA’s existing policies and practices as well as a guidebook to assist in creating a positive and inviting school climate.

According to the brief, questions district leaders may consider are:

  • Does each student have positive relationships with staff and other students?
  • Does each student who needs targeted social-emotional support receive it?
  • Does each student who needs targeted physical and mental health support receive it?

“School districts must prioritize school funding and invest in mental health resources for students of color. Furthermore, research has shown that students who receive adequate mental health support not only have greater overall well-being but also have better educational outcomes,” the brief states. “Social, emotional and academic development of young people are improved in school climates that provide mental health resources and are staffed with trained mental health professionals who can cater to the needs of a diverse student body. District leaders have the authority to ensure that mental health support services are rooted in a race-based lens that fosters inclusivity, access and positive practices for students of color.”

The brief also includes recommendations on what federal and state leaders can do to support student access to mental health services.