6 Steps for Improving K-12 Student Mental Health

A student mental health services provider shares leading practices for preventative programming as public health experts call for universal mental health screenings in schools.

6 Steps for Improving K-12 Student Mental Health

Photo: Photographee.eu, Adobe Stock

A recent study found nearly 60% of college students received mental health care during their K-12 years. However, another recent study found more than 50% of K-12 schools aren’t fully equipped to assist with the mental health-related needs of their students, making it likely many of those college students may not have gotten the support they truly needed to effectively manage their mental health struggles into adulthood.

To address the growing youth mental health crisis, public health experts agree universal mental health screenings are critical and must start at a young age. According to a poll commissioned by Effective School Solutions, a provider of school-based mental health services for K-12 school districts, only 40% of administrators say their school has adopted broad-based mental health screening initiatives.

ESS, which provides clinical programs, professional learning, and consulting services to help districts introduce mental health best practices, believes districts and policymakers need national systems and guidelines for preventative services. To create an impetus for change, ESS recently released a six-point leading practices guide for districts, states, and federal policymakers to reinvent mental health in schools over the next five years. Each step has recommendations for both districts and state/federal groups.

“As is common practice with other public health threats, we need early intervention to tackle the youth mental health crisis. It’s not only essential that schools provide therapeutic services for students, but that they also implement universal mental health screenings to better identify students struggling in silence,” said Duncan Young, CEO of Effective School Solutions. “Our policy guidelines arm districts and policymakers with the knowledge and resources to offer in-school screenings in the upcoming school year and beyond. If we’re serious about improving student wellbeing, every student must have access to these services.”

Below is an overview of the guide. The full guide with more details and recommendations can be read here.

  1. Develop and implement better systems and guidelines for early identification of students with mental health challenges.
    • District recommendations: Incorporate regular mental health screenings of all students throughout the school year.
    • State and federal recommendations: Issue guidelines and best practices for districts to conduct universal mental health screenings with a focus on parental awareness and consent, required systems to follow up, and data and privacy considerations.
  2. Promote and incentivize consistent adherence to a best practice Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) model 
    • District recommendations: Conduct needs assessment of current MTSS for mental health policies and practices; seek guidance on therapeutic best practices for providing MTSS-aligned mental health support at various tiers; provide training to educators to build awareness of the key MTSS-aligned services available in the district.
    • State and federal recommendations: Create clear and standardized definitions of best practices for each tier of the MTSS framework as they pertain to mental health; create a certification program to recognize districts that have implemented mental health best practices; allocate funding to districts looking to create or who have created mental health models with MTSS-aligned best practices.
  3. Create and implement guidelines, systems, and processes for data collection and progress monitoring of school-based mental health initiatives
    • District recommendations: Create progress monitoring guidelines and data collection frameworks aligned to key mental health outcomes; create dashboards/standardized periodic reports on mental health outcomes, as well as a communications plan to share elements of this data with stakeholder groups.
    • State and federal recommendations: Publish guidance for local education agencies (LEAs) on progress monitoring and data collection framework aligned to key mental health outcomes; create federal and state level data infrastructure to store aggregated progress monitoring information; provide funding for districts to create local data progress monitoring tools and processes, and to incentivize adherence to data collection best practices.
  4. Build mental health awareness capacity among adults in school communities
    • District recommendations: Create annual professional and parent learning plans, including defined learning objectives and a calendar of events; partner with expert organizations with deep domain knowledge in building awareness of mental health-related topics; ensure strong processes for monitoring and measuring impact.
    • State and federal recommendations: Publish and distribute guidelines and learning objectives for building mental health awareness with educators and parents; create federal and state resource libraries of professional and adult learning content that can be used for awareness building; provide funding for districts to implement mental health awareness building efforts.
  5. Create sustainable funding pathways for school-based mental health initiatives
    • District recommendations: Ensure senior district administration and finance staff are educated on the full range of options to sustainably fund mental health services; monitor available mental health grants and apply for relevant opportunities where the district is eligible; explore creative uses for Title I, Title II, Title IV, and IDEA funds to support mental health programs; explore self-funding mental health initiatives through a transition from out-of-district placements to in-district programming.
    • State and federal recommendations: Create mental health sustainability funds to ensure a successful transition away from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER)-based funding; create a sustainable mental health funding guide for LEAs; establish permanent funding entitlement streams for mental health initiatives, with an overarching goal of simplifying how mental health initiatives are funded; expand Medicaid to cover school-based mental health care for both special education and general education students.
  6. Ensure all students in need have access to top-tier mental health clinicians
    1. District recommendations: Partner with an agency with deep domain knowledge in hiring high-quality mental health professionals to identify, recruit, and train mental health staff members; ensure the proper resources and processes are in place for providing clinical supervision to individuals working towards full licensure; ensure clear therapeutic guidelines and job descriptions exist for individuals providing mental health services and/or partner with an external agency that can provide such guidelines.
    2. State and federal recommendations: Offer incentives (i.e. tuition reimbursement) to increase the number of entrants into mental health-related fields; launch federal and state campaigns to build awareness of job opportunities in mental health fields; simplify licensure rules and increase reciprocity across state lines and across clinical licensure types (e.g. LCSW, LPC, LMFT); explore the use of alternative job roles (i.e. Wellness Coaches) to extend the number of eligible mental health workforce members.

To help district leaders secure the resources to pay for the recommendations outlined in the guide, ESS also created a seven-part framework to help districts as they search for long-term funding for mental health services. The guide can be found here.

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About the Author


Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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