6 Key Insights from Directors of Student Services

Key discussion points include trends in student mental health & school-based support services, addressing chronic absenteeism, the biggest barriers to care, and more.
(The live discussion is a must-watch! The full video discussion is at the end of this blog post.)

Jillian Kelton, M.Ed, Director of Partnerships, Daybreak Health & Former Chief of Student Support, Boston Public Schools

  • Dr. Jeannie Larberg PhD, NCC, Director of Whole Child Counselor Services & MTSS-B, Sumner-Bonney Lake School District (WA)
  • Mariana Torres, Director, Equity & Access, Apple Valley Unified School District (CA)
  • Abby Liberstein, MS, EdS, Director of Student & Family Service, Alamance-Burlington School System (NC)


Kids are facing a mental health crisis unlike anything the U.S. has ever seen as young people grapple with staggering rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. Tackling the youth mental health crisis seems like an insurmountable problem to solve, but we can. In order to do so, we need to start at the place where kids spend the majority of their time; school.

Schools have started to prioritize students’ mental health. That’s why we brought together three Directors of Student Services from different states—California, Washington, and North Carolina—to discuss what trends they are seeing in regards to the increase in mental health needs among their student populations and what actions they are taking to support those needs.

Here are the key themes that emerged:

1. Demand > Supply

“We saw these trends coming before the pandemic hit. We saw that there was an increase in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations. We saw the storm coming and then the pandemic hit,” shared Mariana Torres, the Director of Equity & Access at Apple Valley Unified School District in California.

The shortage of mental health providers coupled with an increase in student mental health needs has made the gap that we already had even wider. It’s requiring districts and people in student services roles to think differently and outside of their traditional box of tools when it comes to mental health support services. 

Dr. Jeannie Larberg PhD, NCC, Director of Whole Child Counselor Services & MTSS-B at Sumner-Bonney Lake School District in Washington shared that the decrease in the mental healthcare workforce has led to students not getting the care that they need when they visit local emergency rooms with severe needs. In response, they have created a Crisis Mobile Outreach team to ensure that students and families have the support they need as opposed to feeling further traumatized by their long wait times and lack of resources in the ER.  

2. Chronic Absenteeism & Mental Health are Intrinsically Linked

Every state nationwide is experiencing “unprecedented levels and intensity of post-pandemic chronic absenteeism.” Attendance has always been a concern for districts but the pandemic compounded the issue. Students and families are still recovering from the confusion of being sent home due to health mandates and are now being asked to send their students back to school. Additionally, the increase in anxiety and depression is playing out with record numbers of school avoidance cases. 

Dr. Larberg shared the importance of engaging parents and educating them on the importance of students being physically present at school. When a child is experiencing mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression, it is essential for them to be able to access school-based support services. She shared that with Daybreak’s teletherapy services, their students can access evidenced-based practices with therapists—at school or at home—which helps to get students back into the school setting when their anxiety or depression is part of the problem. 

Abby Liberstein, MS, EdS, Director of Student & Family Service at Alamance-Burlington School System in North Carolina reinforced the importance of mental health education for adults, as there is still a stigma that exists amongst families and their community. She is working with district leadership to ensure that all schools within their district have equitable access to student mental health services and education. When we increase access, we simultaneously have to ensure that parents are aware and knowledgeable about what resources are available.

Mariana shared that an integrated approach to addressing chronic absenteeism is key to understanding the full picture of what is going on with that student. “What does the student need? What does the family need?” If a parent is struggling with anxiety then that may be affecting why their child isn’t in school. It’s essential to look at the whole child and include their caregivers in the support. That’s why Apple Valley Unified School District is leveraging Daybreak’s Elementary Teletherapy program which involves both the family and student in the care treatment and journey. Integrating family into the solution is key.

3. Educate the Educators

Mental health literacy for every person in the school community—from the Superintendent to the teachers to the support staff—needs to be prioritized to ensure that the multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) that are in place can be effective. Tier 1 of MTSS is a whole school approach; in every classroom and throughout the school community. We have to be sure that we are providing access and knowledge about the supports and interventions we want teachers to be using.

Student support teams are building tiers of support for the range of mental health needs that students face, but if everyone in the community is not aware of how to identify students' needs and implement those systems, they will likely go unused. It’s important to “go slow to go fast” and build structures that are effective and strong yet flexible. As Mariana pointed out, “one size will never fit all” when it comes to what supports a student or family may need. 

Our panelists discussed the importance of community partnerships, in-school supports, and partnerships with school-based mental health companies like Daybreak.

4. Data + Community are Essential for Sustainable Services 

Every district across the country is experiencing the “ESSER cliff” and feeling the impact of losing the one-time funding that was provided to districts during the pandemic. Our panelists shared some key insights into how they are ensuring these school-based mental health supports, many of which were ESSER funded, will continue in the future.

Dr. Larberg called out that it “isn’t just about the funding.” Her passion, time, and energy is focused on being part of the legislative process and part of local advisory councils. She encouraged others to get involved because these groups are often not fully aware of what is going on in schools and don’t fully understand how the school system works. She is able to provide that voice, influence legislation, and build partnerships to support these essential programs. She called out that local universities are a great place to start to build these partnerships.

Mariana also reinforced the importance of bringing everyone together to have a seat at the table. In order to service the whole child, students, parents, and community partners must listen to one another and collaborate. In California, districts develop a three-year plan called the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that describes the goals, actions, services, and expenditures to support positive student outcomes. She shared that “it’s everybody’s plan” and mental health is at the forefront and no longer taking a back seat. Schools must step up because “these are our kids.” It truly takes all stakeholders being involved in the solution for it to succeed.

Abby shared that her district is “falling off the ESSER cliff” but she is using data to ensure she gets the grants to continue services. What she loves about working with Daybreak is that she can easily and frequently access the data that she needs to maintain and sustain funding via grants. Collecting data has been challenging with local community partners which makes it harder for her to advocate for the continuity of those programs.

5. Access is the biggest barrier

All of our panelists talked about long wait times, lack of transportation, and the inflexible nature of when and where students can access services being barriers to accessing mental healthcare. Dr. Larberg said that “90% of my day is trying to find the right place with the right support for each family.” 

They shared that Daybreak’s teletherapy services have allowed them to provide more equitable access to quality care, quickly. By using evidence-based practices, therapists can work with students with mild to moderate needs to prevent future crises. Teletherapy services don’t require families to take time away from work or find the transportation to physically get to an appointment. And, because students can do sessions at home or at school, they are able to schedule sessions at night or even on the weekends. 

Abby shared how long it can take to access local services and sometimes there’s a stigma that needs to be overcome even before the referral process. She said that “Daybreak makes the process as smooth as can be” and it takes a huge burden off of her school-based counselors. 

6. Make Space—Physical and Emotional

When it came time for Q&A, the concept of “space” came up in a few different ways. First, attendees asked about how schools provide the physical space for teletherapy sessions to happen on campus. The panelists responded that it does take some time and coordination but when the importance of mental health is understood across the district, they find the space (even if it means getting creative!). These spaces are private, confidential, and secure, and a counselor takes each student there and sets them up for a successful session. The end result is that sessions are happening successfully all day long. 

Download this resource to learn more: Playbook for School Districts: How to Provide Teletherapy On-Site

Secondly, the panelists discussed making space to bring in the “silent voices” in the community. You have to make an effort to reach out to families and meet them where they are at, which isn’t always in a school building. We must be willing to go to their homes, their community centers and be willing to make space for their voices. We cannot forget that families are the experts on their children and their involvement is an essential part of making true forward progress when supporting the mental health needs of our students.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.