Countering a Student Mental Health Crisis in Overwhelmed Schools

As the counselor shortage continues, here are three ways a psychologist says schools can help prevent the escalation of student mental health issues.

Countering a Student Mental Health Crisis in Overwhelmed Schools

Photo: netrun78 -

A 2023 study by Mental Health America noted while two million youths experienced depression, nearly 60% received no treatment. And while 75% of mental health issues are established before the age of 24, almost 90% of services and support available today are spent on acute care models.

Access to mental health services is limited for today’s young people, particularly for those not in crisis. Compounding the issue is that demand vastly outweighs supply, as there are simply not enough clinicians, school counselors, or mental health professionals to support the growing number of young people facing a potential crisis.

The National Council for Behavioral Health reports more than three-quarters of all counties in the U.S. now face a severe shortage of behavioral health staffers, particularly in rural areas. Additionally, the current demand indicates a need for an additional 8,000 psychiatrists immediately, with projections indicating that this shortfall could double by 2025.

There’s a mental health crisis among young people, and schools can play a prominent role in supporting students.

Reduce stigma and talk openly about mental health

For superintendents and the educators, counselors, security and safety leaders they work alongside, a critical step forward is to help make student mental health part of an ongoing dialogue, not a reaction to an incident. The topic should also be socialized with educators across the school system. This will gain the perspective and feedback needed to build effective practices and policies, enabling overwhelmed schools to better support and help students.

A healthy dialogue should be opened with students as well. We must teach and encourage children to recognize and talk about feelings that cause them issues at home and school. This practice should be integrated into the school curriculum, alongside subjects such as healthy nutrition and sexual education, and addressed during events like assemblies. Recognizing and normalizing mental health as an integral aspect of overall health and fostering open discussion on this subject in schools is vital.

With a focus on building this open culture, students will be more apt to seek help for themselves or others who may be struggling. Consequently, schools will be better equipped to offer or facilitate access to the necessary support services.

Support a structure that helps involve everyone

Superintendents and school administrators must have a solid structure in place to help students and support the teaching staff involved. The following are a few key areas to focus on:

  • Mental health services: When students take that step to reach out, staff must be ready to deliver. That means connecting students with effective, on-premises mental health services spearheaded by school counselors. This is extremely important as students are more likely to participate in counseling at school than to seek out outside resources. In rural communities, it’s often their only option for getting treatment.
  • Staff training: Ensure staff receive training on Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). Through this training, staff will develop the skills needed to recognize when youth are at potential risk and be able to intervene early.
  • Discipline policies: When students feel their school is a safe place where rules are upheld and enforced fairly, discipline issues decrease. Review and monitor discipline policies and refine and update these as needed based on school trends data and feedback from students and parents.
  • Staff mental health: It’s vital that superintendents ensure teachers and staff on the front lines receive mental health support to avoid burnout and personal stress. To this end, schools should explore wellness programs covering aspects from health education to emotional learning to stress management. This emphasis has been shown to raise job satisfaction and positively affect students and the environment.
  • Parental involvement: Parents should be involved in mental health discussions and school leaders should be transparent when doing so. In conversations with parents, school officials should be as open as possible. Uninformed parents can hinder students from getting help, whereas those who are engaged can be the best facilitators.

Meet students where they are

The provider shortage and barriers noted above are standing in the way of students getting mental health services. To overcome this, they need to build skills and have easy access to tools that will enable them to manage their mental health.

According to a Gallup survey of 1,500 adolescents, you’ll find young people online — teens spend 4.8 hours per day using social media apps. With this in mind, an emerging approach to helping students build resilience to handle life’s challenges is web-based behavioral health applications that provide safe, clinically sound spaces for students to share experiences and gain support from empathetic peers and qualified professionals. Many of these platforms are available 24/7, and if there are any red flags indicating a student is in danger, escalation processes ensure services and adults outside the platform are engaged.

This offers hope to young people who otherwise wouldn’t know where to find mental health and wellness resources or if they’d benefit from them. These apps empower young people with education around such things as recognizing anxiety and how to manage it. In many ways, students are a sub-clinical population with issues that don’t necessarily rise to the levels of needing in-person therapy or medication. These apps can keep students from falling through the cracks and worsening what could be a preventable escalation of mental health issues.

Case in point

In Pennsylvania, more than 100,000 students in school districts across the state were given access to such an app. This provided them with educational content on mental health, self-help practices, moderated forums, therapeutic activities, and more – all available from their smartphones and computers. Most importantly, students could get professional help through asynchronous messaging and live chat-based counseling.

After only one year, a follow-up survey revealed the app’s potential. A few usage highlights included:

  • 93% of students felt heard, understood, and respected
  • 91% of students found online sessions helpful
  • 86% would recommend the app to a friend

The app also won strong support from school leaders:

  • 92% of school staff and district staff members felt such digital services can support students’ mental well-being in their districts
  • 75% of principals and superintendents were “confident” or “very confident” it will improve the rapid escalation of support for students in crisis

This program could serve as a model for other states to adopt. When you provide this kind of access to evidence-based mental health support, students are provided with a resource right at their fingertips that provides education, increased awareness, coping skills, and strategies to better manage their mental health.

In doing so, overwhelmed schools and their leaders can mitigate a crisis and create sustainable, safe, and healthy environments.

Dr. Beth Pausic is a clinical psychologist and vice president of clinical excellence at Kooth Digital Health, a leader in youth-focused digital mental health.

If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

Leading in Turbulent Times: Effective Campus Public Safety Leadership for the 21st Century

This new webcast will discuss how campus public safety leaders can effectively incorporate Clery Act, Title IX, customer service, “helicopter” parents, emergency notification, town-gown relationships, brand management, Greek Life, student recruitment, faculty, and more into their roles and develop the necessary skills to successfully lead their departments. Register today to attend this free webcast!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety Conference promo