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  • Kristina Riffle Semukete

Mental Health Crisis in Schools

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

The mental health crisis is a dangerous epidemic spreading across schools in America. Unfortunately, mental health is still considered a taboo subject that most people avoid. Did you know that one in five youth live with a mental health condition, but less than half of these children receive needed services? Undiagnosed, untreated or inadequately treated mental health conditions can affect a student’s ability to learn, grow and develop.

Schools provide a unique opportunity to identify and treat mental health conditions by serving students where they already are. School personnel play an important role in identifying the early warning signs of an emerging mental health condition and in linking students with effective services and supports.


According to the CDC:

  • 1 in 6 U.S. children ages 2-8 years have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.

  • 1 in 5 children ages 13-18 have, or will have a serious mental illness.

  • 70% of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness.

Warning signs school staff can watch out for:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than 2 weeks (e.g., crying regularly, feeling fatigued, feeling unmotivated).

  • Trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans to do so.

  • Out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors that can cause harm to self or others.

  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart, physical discomfort, or fast breathing.

  • Not eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to lose weight; significant weight loss or gain.

  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships.

  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol.

  • Drastic changes in behavior, personality or sleeping habits (e.g., waking up early and acting agitated).

  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that can lead to failure in school.

  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities like hanging out with friends or going to classes.

How do we actually HELP the kids while they are at school?

Provide training to school faculty and staff on the early warning signs of mental illness that are listed above. It is important for teachers to recognize the difference between bad behavior and mental health and for them to have a flexible classroom culture that can help students with mental health disorders. Teachers can also provide accommodations to struggling students in order for them to become successful. Kids should not be expected to be perfect; instead, they need to be expected to work on improving their own behavior through self-regulation and taking opportunities to figure out what they need to make their behaviors better.

Offer social and emotional learning programs that provide instruction intended to promote students’ skills of self-awareness, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and to improve students’ attitudes and beliefs about themselves, others, and school.

Early diagnosis and appropriate services for children and their families can make a difference in the lives of children with mental disorders. Access to providers who can offer services, including screening, referrals, and treatment, varies by location and schools should create and have a list of resources for families. This list will help parents provide access to services and supports and help reduce the confusion and isolation experienced by youth with mental health conditions and their families.


How do you get money for your school to help with mental health services?

Review the Guide to Federal Education Programs that can fund K-12 universal prevention and social and emotional learning activities. Federal education funding has often been overlooked by districts in search of sources of support for prevention. This guide is intended to help school districts take advantage of those funds by identifying K-12 grant programs in the U.S. Department of Education (ED) that could be used to implement prevention efforts in elementary and secondary schools.

The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program provides funding to establish or expand elementary and secondary school counseling programs. This program is comprehensive in addressing the counseling and educational needs of all students and uses a developmental, preventive approach to counseling. It expands counseling services through qualified school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, other qualified psychologists, or child and adolescent psychiatrists.

The Mental Health in Schools Act (H.R. 1211/S. 1588). This bill provides federal funding to train school staff on mental health related issues, to establish comprehensive school-based mental health services, and to create links between schools and the community mental health system.

Other Resources. Don’t forget about federal funding streams in your state such as Title I, Title II, Rural and Low-Income Schools, and Title IV to help with student mental health needs. Consider taking classes such as Mental Health First Aid or Introduction to Nonviolent Communication, Helpful organizations include the Sucide Prevention Resource Center, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Institute of Mental Health.


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