National data emphasizes need for sustained mental health supports and training

Many students are not receiving adequate health education and services needed for healthy development, despite widespread desire expressed among education officials to address these issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest School Health Profiles.

For instance, nationwide, 90 percent schools worked to increase student knowledge about emotional and mental health. Yet less than 70 percent of lead health education teachers received professional development training in emotional and mental health from 2018 to 2020. And while about 75 percent of schools encouraged students to respect others’ sexual and gender identities, fewer than half of all schools have a Gender and Sexuality Alliance, which researchers note are shown to benefit all students regardless of sexual and/or gender identity.

“Many similar data points vary widely across the nation, providing broad opportunity to improve health education and services for all students,” they wrote. “Schools are a critical part of healthy development and serve as an intervention point for youth-focused public health efforts. Nearly 60 million students spend more than 6 hours a day in school, many receiving important services for social development and connection.”

The report found that even prior to the pandemic, more than 50 percent of states saw the percentage of schools with a School Improvement Plan that includes health-related objectives on social and emotional climate increase — suggesting local educational agencies are already in the process of improving upon the findings outlined in the report.

And while researchers highlighted that fewer than seven in 10 lead health education teachers received professional development training in emotional and mental health between 2018–20, they found significant increases in the percentage of schools in which the lead health education teacher received professional development on the following topics during that same time period:

  • Emotional and mental health
  • Teaching students with physical, medical or cognitive disabilities
  • Teaching students of various cultural backgrounds
  • Using interactive teaching methods (e.g., role plays, cooperative group activities)
  • Classroom management techniques (e.g., social skills training, environmental modification, conflict resolution and mediation, behavior management)

Long-term changes

The CDC established School Health Profiles in 1996 to monitor secondary school health policies and practices such as health education requirements and content, physical education and activity, safe and supportive environments, health services and school health coordination. COVID-19 school closures interrupted data collection — originally planned for Jan. through June — which was extended in several states and LEAs through December 2020.

Over the course of the 10 years prior to the most recent data collection, researchers found significant increases in professional development related to addressing students’ social-emotional needs; the percentage of schools in which students take two or more required health education courses; the of schools that provide curricula or supplementary materials that include HIV, STD or pregnancy prevention information that is relevant to LGBTQ youth; the percentage of schools in which teachers tried to increase student knowledge on suicide prevention in a required course in any of grades 6 through 12 and more.

On the flipside, the percentage of schools in which teachers taught tobacco-use prevention topics including identifying short- and long-term health consequences of tobacco product use, understanding the addictive nature of nicotine, using interpersonal communication skills to avoid tobacco product use, and more significantly decreased. While drug and alcohol use among teens has declined, researchers said schools should sustain prevention programs.

“Prevention of substance misuse is critical, because early substance use increases the likelihood of concurrent mental health challenges and engagement in other risk behaviors, including teen dating violence and sexual violence. Early substance use also increases the likelihood of adult substance use disorders,” according to the report. “School-based prevention strategies can be effective in delaying or preventing initiation of substance use and preventing escalation of use. Schools are noted as an optimal prevention setting because of the existence of evidence-based programs that are effective in deterring and delaying substance use and are also cost-effective.”