K-12 Schools Now Primary Providers of Mental Health Services for Adolescents

Press Release

K-12 Schools Now Primary Providers of Mental Health Services for Adolescents

New EAB report shows many schools are unprepared to handle the dramatic increase in the number of students experiencing mental health crises

San Diego, CA, Feb. 13, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Education firm EAB’s latest report, “Are Districts the Nation’s Adolescent Mental Health Care Providers?” outlines the difficulties school districts face in handling their emerging role as the nation’s primary provider of adolescent mental health services. The report was released today at the School Superintendents Association (AASA) National Conference on Education.

“Whether they’re ready or not, schools are being forced to serve as the frontline providers of mental health services for America’s youth,” said EAB Managing Director Pete Talbot.

“There’s an argument to be made that schools should serve this role since virtually all kids pass through their doors. However, at many schools, administrators and staff are not adequately trained or resourced to fulfill that mission.”


of students aged 14–18 experience a mental health-related crisis each year
of students aged 14–18 experience a mental health-related crisis each year

Adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise across demographic and socioeconomic groups. EAB analysis indicates that 35 percent of students aged 14–18 experience a mental health-related crisis each year, defined as involving one or more of these issues: non-suicidal self-injury (18 percent), suicidal ideation (10 percent), or attempted suicide (7 percent). A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health revealed that young people are 21 times more likely to visit a school-based health clinic for their mental health concerns than a community-based clinic.

Through research and recent discussions with more than 100 school superintendents, EAB found that diagnosis and treatment efforts are hampered by four key factors: (1) poor reintegration of students back into school post-crisis, (2) persistent social stigma around mental illness, (3) inability to identify students of concern early on, and (4) lack of coordination between schools and external care providers. To overcome these barriers, school districts nationwide are encouraged to adopt the following best practices:

1. Help Students Reintegrate Following a Leave of Absence

Few districts have established detailed and effective practices for reintegrating students into academic life following a mental health-related absence. Such students have demonstrated an increased risk of experiencing emotional and academic challenges, and many will not graduate. It is important for schools to implement thorough back-to-school transition plans and programs that combine clinical care, academic support, and family engagement.

“Successful reintegration of students back into school following a crisis is the area where most school districts have the greatest opportunity to improve the provision of mental health care,” Talbot added.

2. Reduce Mental Health Stigma via Year-Round Engagement

Most districts make efforts to engage students and educators in the broader mental health conversation. However, these efforts tend to focus on specific campaigns of limited duration, which makes it difficult to sustain their impact. To reduce the stigma around mental illness, year-round programs are necessary. One solution gaining traction is the launch of student-led mental health clubs. These clubs are typically facilitated by a staff advisor and enable students to discuss perceptions, personal experiences, and opportunities to positively impact student wellness. Such discussions help normalize mental health issues, encourage conversations about individual struggles, and enable students to ask for and accept help without hesitation or shame.

3. Broaden and Strengthen Your Crisis Identification and Referral Network

Early warning systems can help school personnel identify students at risk before a crisis occurs. Districts should focus on creating multiple ways to identify students of concern, including building stronger partnerships with community providers and first responders. For example, some school districts have launched “Handle with Care” initiatives that expand and strengthen collaboration with local first responders. With the use of such a program, designated district staff members are notified by first responders when a student witnesses or is involved in a potentially traumatic incident. That notification contains no incident details other than the name of the student, but it alerts teachers and support staff to monitor that student for signs of distress.

4. Leverage Telepsychiatry and Virtual Treatment Options Where Necessary

In areas where community mental health resources are unavailable or in short supply, school districts can contract with national providers to make telepsychiatry and virtual treatment available to their students. Telemental health remains underutilized among schools despite its proven clinical effectiveness.

“When students struggle with psychological or emotional issues, they are more likely to be distracted in class, unable to attend school, or drop out of school entirely,” Talbot cautions.

“Schools need to take the lead in engaging as many people as necessary to build a stronger safety net and serve as the center of a coordinated system of adolescent mental health care.”

About EAB

EAB partners with 1,700 colleges, universities, and K-12 schools across North America and abroad to foster student success at every level. Our work with K-12 districts is focused on identifying the most innovative, scalable, and proven strategies to address top challenges. Our research and implementation toolkits focus on topics such as narrowing the third-grade reading gap, college access, career readiness, teacher recruitment, district communications, and school safety. By equipping schools with best practices to solve critical problems, we are making education smarter and our communities stronger.

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