LEAs, federal leaders share how they’re addressing youth mental health

“Addressing the Student Mental Health Crisis,” a webinar hosted by the Healthy Schools Campaign on Sept. 14, showcased how some local educational agencies are handling the challenge as well as what’s being done at the federal level.

“The last two-and-a-half years have been intensely difficult for school children. Children already struggled with a variety of physical and mental health issues that impacted their ability to learn. The pandemic intensified these issues causing soaring rates of school disconnection, trauma, anxiety, depression and suicide among children and youth,” said Rochelle Davis, Healthy Schools Campaign president and CEO. “The pandemic also widened the already glaring disparities in the kinds of support and services that were provided in schools serving low-income, Black and Latinx students. COVID dramatically highlighted the role that schools need to play in healthy learning environments and created an unprecedented opportunity to re-examine health and education policy.”

While many are ready to return to “normal,” Davis said going back to the pre-pandemic standard practices that failed countless students must be avoided.

Eva Stone, manager of district health at Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, spoke about Medicaid expansion and billing practices in her state following the reversal of the Medicaid Free Care Rule, which previously limited billing to only students with an individualized educational program (IEP) and now allows for billing for serving students who do not have IEPs, including for mental and physical health services. (Information on California’s ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Local Educational Agency Medi-Cal Billing Option Program​​ is available here.)

Heather Wines, supervisor of social-emotional learning at Prince William County Schools in Virginia, oversees the district’s Heals Initiative, a program stemming from the pandemic that offers supports to students and staff. She explained how COVID relief dollars have been used to fund staffing and the initiative’s three focal points: social-emotional learning, healing-centered engagement and support core.

Jadine Chou, chief of safety and security for Chicago Public Schools, recalled the organizational change her district has been working toward where schools focus less on punishment and enforcement tactics and more on offering support to the young people they serve. The LEA is grounded in establishing and maintaining trusting relationships, as students said that is what makes them feel most safe, both physically and emotionally, at school.

Federal point of view

Katie Dealy, director of engagement at the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, pointed out that all three districts’ efforts are centered in recognizing the importance of mental health and well-being. While they are primarily aimed at helping students, supporting adults is also a key aspect. The efforts are also equity centered and community driven.

“At the federal level, we can certainly create opportunities to do exciting things, but the success is not if we create those opportunities,” Dealy said. “The success is really the incredible and creative work at the local level.”

Youth mental health is a priority for Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, Dealy said, noting that the office takes “great pains to make sure that we are communicating at all times the data that shows the growth in the need [for supports] and the crisis in the decade before the pandemic.”

Dealy pointed to the Surgeon General’s 2021 advisory Protecting Youth Mental Health, which outlines policy, institutional and individual changes that can be taken to reframe how the country views, prioritizes and prevents mental health challenges.

“Among the main recommendations were ensuring that every child has access to high-quality, affordable and culturally competent mental health care; a renewed focus on prevention by investing in school- and community-based programs; and increasing our understanding of the impact that technology and social media has on mental health,” Dealy said.

A recording of the webinar is available to view here.