School Mental Health Project

Mental Health in Schools: An Overview

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The following brief statement is based on policy and practice analyses reported in various Center Documents

Why mental health
in schools

It is, of course, not a new insight that physical and mental health concerns must be addressed if schools are to function satisfactorily and students are to succeed at school. It has long been acknowledged that a variety of psychosocial and health problems affect learning and performance in profound ways. Such problems are exacerbated as youngsters internalize the debilitating effects of performing poorly at school and are punished for the misbehavior that is a common correlate of school failure. Because of all this, school policy makers, have a lengthy (albeit somewhat reluctant) history of trying to assist teachers in dealing with problems that interfere with schooling. Prominent examples are seen in the range of counseling, psychological, and social service programs schools provide.

Adding to what school education support staff do, there has been renewed emphasis over the past 20 years in the health and social services arenas on increasing linkages between schools and community service agencies to enhance the well-being of young people and their families. This "school-linked services" agenda has added impetus to advocacy for mental health in schools.

More recently, the efforts of some advocates for school-linked services has merged with forces working to enhance initiatives for community schools, youth development, and the preparation of healthy and productive citizens and workers. The merger has expanded interest in social-emotional learning and protective factors as avenues to increase students' assets and resiliency and reduce risk factors.

Thus, varied policies and initiatives have emerged relevant to efforts to enhance mental health in schools. Some directly support school programs and personnel; others connect community programs and personnel with schools. As a result, most schools have some programs to address a range of mental health and psychosocial concerns (e.g., school adjustment and attendance problems, dropouts, physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, emotional upset, delinquency, violence.)

School-based and school-linked programs have been developed for purposes of early intervention, crisis intervention and prevention, treatment, and promotion of positive social and emotional development. And, available research suggests that for some youngsters schools are the main providers of mental health services. As Burns and her colleagues report from the study of children's utilization of MH services in western North Carolina, "the major player in the de facto system of care was the education sector – more than three-fourths of children receiving mental health services were seen in the education sector, and for many this was the sole source of care."

Advancing mental health in schools

Clearly, mental health activity is going on in schools. Equally evident, there is a great deal to be done to improve what is taking place. The current norm related to efforts to advance mental health policy is for a vast sea of advocates to compete for the same dwindling resources. This includes advocates representing different professional practitioner groups. Naturally, all such advocates want to advance their agenda. And, to do so, the temptation usually is to keep the agenda problem-focused and rather specific and narrow. Politically, this make some sense. But in the long-run, it may be counterproductive in that it fosters piecemeal, fragmented, and redundant policies and practices. Diverse school and community resources are attempting to address complex, multifaceted, and overlapping psychosocial and mental health concerns in highly fragmented and marginalized ways. This has led to redundancy, inappropriate competition, and inadequate results.

One response to this state of affairs is seen in the calls for realigning policy and practice around a cohesive framework based on well-conceived models and the best available scholarship. With specific respect to mental health in schools, it has been stressed that initiatives must connect in major ways with the mission of schools and integrate with a restructured system of education support programs and services.

From our perspective, it is time to take a close look at all the pieces. To date, there has been no comprehensive mapping and no overall analysis of the amount of resources used for efforts relevant to mental health in schools or of how they are expended. Without such a "big picture" analysis, policymakers and practitioners are deprived of information that is essential in determining equity and enhancing system effectiveness. The challenge for those focused on mental health in schools is not only to understand the basic concerns hampering the field, but to function on the cutting edge of change so that the concerns are effectively addressed.

Systemic changes must weave school owned resources and community owned resources together to develop comprehensive, multifaceted, and integrated approaches for addressing barriers to learning and enhancing healthy development. Moreover, pursuit of such changes also must address complications stemming from the scale of public education in the U.S.A. Currently, there are about 90,000 public schools in about 15,000 districts. Thus, efforts to advance mental health in schools also must adopt effective models and procedures for replication and "scale-up."

Needed: Strategic approaches & comprehensive frameworks to enhance policy & practice

Although efforts to advance mental health in schools often are hampered by competing initiatives and agendas, the diversity of initiatives has laid a foundation that can be built upon. There is a need, however, for increased emphasis on strategic approaches for enhancing policy and practice. Such strategic approaches can be fostered through efforts to unify thinking about mental health in schools, adoption of well-conceived guiding frameworks, and by support for development of focused networking. To these ends, the Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA (1) highlights the need for a broad perspective in thinking about and justifying "mental health" in schools, (2) promotes a working draft of comprehensive and multifaceted guidelines that provide a basis for operationally defining mental health in schools, (3) proposes an integrated framework for promoting healthy development and addressing barriers to learning at a school site in ways that can expand the impact of mental health in schools, and (4) pursues a wide variety of strategies designed to advance the field.

Ending the marginalization

Clearly, enhancing mental health in schools in comprehensive ways is not an easy task. Indeed, it is likely to remain an insurmountable task until school reformers accept the reality that such activity is essential and does not represent an agenda separate from a school's instructional mission. For this to happen, we must encourage them to view the difficulty of raising achievement test scores through the complementary lenses of addressing barriers to learning and promoting healthy development. When this is done, it is more likely that mental health in schools will be understood as essential to addressing barriers to learning and not as an agenda separate from a school's instructional mission.

Then, we must show how all policy, practice, and research related to mental health in schools, including the many categorical programs funded to deal with designated problems, can be woven into a cohesive continuum of interventions and integrated thoroughly with school reform efforts. In the process, we will need to stress the importance of school-community-home collaborations in weaving together the resources for comprehensive, multifaceted approaches.

In sum, advancing mental health in schools is about much more than expanding services and creating full service schools. It is about establishing comprehensive, multifaceted approaches that help ensure schools are caring and supportive places that maximize learning and well-being and strengthen students, families, schools, and neighborhoods.

Note: Available is a Power Point presentation entitled: Mental Health in Schools: Becoming an Integrated Part of the School Improvement Agenda along with a set of PDF formatted handouts from which the power point slides were created.

Practitioner and Professional Development:
Virtual Toolbox for Mental Health in Schools

This online toolbox compiles various brief resources developed by the Center at UCLA.  The contents of the toolbox should be useful to any school practitioner and those involved in pre-and inservice professional development programs.

Special Resource focused on advancing the field

From Corwin Press

Mental Health in Schools: Engaging Learners, Preventing Problems, and Improving Schools.

Also see presentations, handouts and slides for
Mental Health in Schools: Becoming an Integrated Part
of the School Improvement Agenda



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