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Insight Paper

Are Districts the Nation’s Adolescent Mental Health Care Providers?

A mandate to support seven million students in crisis

Student mental health is a top-of-mind issue for every school district in the country. Recent surveys show superintendents in every state identify “adolescents in crisis” as a top concern in their schools as serious mental-health-related crises now affect more than a third of adolescents in the U.S.

There are various barriers to adolescent mental health support at schools, ranging from social stigma to inefficient care coordination. These barriers prevent students, parents, and staff from responding to mental health challenges in a timely and effective manner, leaving many students vulnerable and unable to receive help when they need it most.

Four preventable barriers to K-12 mental health impact

Persistent stigma around mental health prevents referrals

While mental health issues have become more visible, continued stigma hinders identification, referrals, and support efforts. Districts must move beyond Mental Health Month and instead promote year-round awareness campaigns that reach both students and their families.

Students in crisis are identified too late

Current efforts to identify students of concern allow too many students to remain unnoticed and unsupported until they end up in crisis. Districts must develop a “safety net” of processes and protocols to identify students in need and quickly refer them to the services that they require.

Access to care is inconsistent and uncoordinated

Districts do not use all available avenues to deliver in-house care effectively, and coordination with community mental health resources is often inconsistent. Delivering scalable access to clinical care and establishing joint standards of practice between the district and community are the first steps that every district should be taking to ensure that the right supports are available to every student.

Ineffective transitions hamper care management

Poor information-sharing and lack of coordination between districts and external care providers harm student outcomes. Successful reintegration of students into a school post-crisis is perhaps the greatest area of weakness in the provision of mental health care for districts across the country.

Nationwide, a handful of innovative districts have developed replicable and scalable practices that address each of these four barriers. Our researchers collated these practices that any district can use to build a coordinated cascade of mental health services that will effectively support students in crisis.

Barrier to K-12 mental health support Innovation by peer districts Implementation plan
Persistent stigma around mental health prevents referrals Reduce mental health stigma via year-round student and family engagement Ongoing peer-to-peer student education and mentoring

Campaign to share experiences overcoming mental health struggles

Wellness-focused family workshop series

Students in crisis are identified too late Broaden and strengthen your crisis identification and referral network Quick-access crisis reference card

First responder “handle with care” notification

Online monitoring to identify students of concern

Access to care is inconsistent and uncoordinated Coordinate and scale access to internal and external mental health care External referral coordination program

Post-discharge case management
Coordinated reentry process

Ineffective transitions hamper care management Improve coordination and support during care transitions Group-model cognitive behavioral therapy

Joint district-community standards of practice

District-led community mental health service allocation

Tech-enabled mental health support


Download the PDF

  • K-12 Student Mental Health and Wellness

  • 13 Reasons Why Not: How One School Faced a Difficult Conversation about Suicide

  • Managing Behavioral Disruptions in Early Grades Audit

  • Social-Emotional Support Services for Secondary Students

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