Funding Strategies for School-Based Mental Health Programs: 3 Important Tips from District Experts

Funding for school-based mental programs can be complicated and arduous. But the youth mental health crisis is at a tipping point and the need for these services are more important now than ever. Youth mental health has become a national priority and there are consistently new sources of funding being made available. School districts must take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to develop and enhance their student mental health supports.

Daybreak Health hosted a webinar with three district experts who broke down where to start, best practices, and how to build a case for new mental health program funding. Here are 3 key takeaways:

1. Reframe Traditional Ways of Thinking About Funding

Hearing a Superintendent’s point of view on funding new student mental health programs was insightful. Dr. Hani Youssef, Ed.D., District Superintendent at Simi Valley Unified School District, posed a question to district leaders who are feeling hesitant about spending one-time funds, “If not now, when?” He challenged school districts to re-evaluate current practices and strategies for using temporary funding. Historically, districts have shied away from using one-time funds on programming or resources that are not sustainable. But, he encouraged districts to push back on that antiquated model and way of thinking and be more opportunistic with the funding sources that are available now. 

Students and families need this support today. Mental health care is inaccessible and unaffordable and they are looking to schools for help. He suggested asking yourself, “What do we have currently in place that is meeting the needs of our students?” Self-reflection and hard conversations need to happen to get these students the services they need. Dr. Youssef said, “There’s no playbook or blueprint for this but we are here now for today’s students. Our students need the support now, not later.” He urged districts to leverage the funding that is available and advised that this won’t be the last mental health funding that will be provided to districts in the future. 

2. Best Practices for Applying for Grants

Melissa Rubio, SEL/PBIS Consultant for K-12 Districts in California and former Director of Student Services at Upland Unified, shared useful best practices to consider when applying for grants. Once a district identifies which grants would be applicable for your needs, you must create executive-level buy-in. In order to do this, it is critical to show what you are already doing to respond to students' mental health needs and the infrastructure you have built to support that. The grantors want to know that your district is committed to solving these needs and gaps in student mental health care. 

It’s essential to create a cross-functional team for grant writing and identify who is going to oversee the grant writing application, contracting, student services, billing, record keeping, and auditing. Any silos that exist should be broken down to allow for successful collaboration. Once you have your core team in place, you can review the deadlines and rubrics for grant applications. 

Another key input to getting cabinet approvals is creating an advisory group of teachers, parents, students, and other community partners. Universal screeners and surveys are a great way to hear from students and a working team of parents and teachers shows that you are collecting important information from the frontlines.

3. Building a Strong Case for New Programs

Jada Jackson, Ed.D., Student Services Coordinator at Antelope Valley Union High School District, stressed the importance of leveraging both quantitative and qualitative data to build a case for more mental health funding and resources. She recommends creating a compelling one-pager with the following information to prove where there are gaps in services:

  • Student Needs (# of walk-ins, # of requests for 1:1 interventions, # of crises)
  • Mental health trends (sub-populations impacted, students requesting support vs. receiving it, waitlists with outside providers, etc.)
  • Where and how your mental health staff and counselors are spending their time (track time, counselor activity, direct vs. indirect, responsive, curriculum, restorative chat)
  • Articulation of previous attempts at solving the problem and gaps (i.e. difficulty hiring in-person staff, wait times with community partners, etc.)

Here’s an example that Jada shared based on the ASCA’s time analysis template.

This intentional data collection helps to make the case for additional needs and services within the MTSS framework. 

The one-page brief should also include:

  • Your proposed solution to fill the gaps in services like partnering with a teletherapy provider, hiring additional on-site staff, setting up universal screeners, offering mental health education, and more. It’s worth it to do the research to evaluate partners/providers in advance so you are ready to go when/if the proposal is accepted. 
  • The impact of these new services (# of additional students supported, # of crisis averted, improvements to productivity of mental health staff)
  • What existing or new funds can be leverage (talk with your business services/budget team and articulate a sustainability strategy)

When you present your plan to district leadership, make sure to think ahead of common objections (funding, efficiency/use of existing resources, sustainability) and be prepared with responses. Jada shared that if a program is working, and you can show that it is having an impact, the district will find funding for it.

As Hani said, always ask yourself this fundamental question, “Is it good for the kids?” When it comes to providing more mental health support, the answer is almost always “yes.”

Let’s talk about how Daybreak partners with school districts across the country to provide the most comprehensive school-based mental health programs, designed specifically for youth. From 1:1 virtual therapy with licensed clinicians to ongoing screening to education, we are driven to solve the most defining problem of an entire generation.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

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