How K-12 School Districts are Identifying and Addressing Student Mental Health Needs

The CDC just released their Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the results were distressing. Amongst all teens, it found increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts. But, teen girls fared worse than boys with 57% of them feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, double the rate of 29% for teen boys.

The CDC just released their Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the results were distressing. Amongst all teens, it found increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts. But, teen girls fared worse than boys with 57% of them feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, double the rate of 29% for teen boys.

Our schools are on the frontlines of this youth mental health crisis. With increased access to school-based mental health funding, districts are stepping up to create comprehensive mental health programs to meet their students' diverse needs.

We spoke with three mental health district administrators from different states to discuss what mental health supports they have put in place—from the identification of needs to mapping those needs to multi-tiered systems of support.

Here are the key themes that emerged:

1. Take a holistic, collaborative approach to youth mental health

Each one of our panelists talked about the importance of involving staff, families, and even students to help identify needs and normalize getting mental health support. 

Mayra A. Hernandez, LCSW-S, SEP, Director of The Whole Child and Community Partnerships & Engagement at Manor Independent School District in Texas, discussed how they recently launched a mental health screener to “understand the full story of the scholars at Manor ISD and learn how to intervene and provide the mental health support that is needed.” She shared the importance of educating families about the screener by providing information about what the purpose of it is, the reasoning behind it as a preventative measure, and how they plan to connect scholars to services once they gather the data. She also called out the importance of communicating with school teams about when and how the screener would be administered and how the district planned to use that information.

Mental health classes are a resource that Diana Chapero, Pupil Services and Attendance Counselor at Victor Valley Union High School District (VVUSD) in California, provides to families and staff to ensure that the people that surround teens feel educated on how to best support youth mental health. She kept hearing from families that “they want to help but they don’t know how.” For her families and staff, tier 1 support was a major focus. By providing a curriculum of mental health classes, it helps to educate the community about where kids may be struggling and learn how to talk with kids about these challenges. Classes like “Communicating with your Child,” “Grief & Loss,” and “Youth Suicide Prevention” have been offered to families virtually and in-person and have provided families with a safe space to discuss any challenges they are having with their kids. 

For school staff, VVUSD offers classes like “Building Powerful Student Relationships”  to “help them build their capacity in helping our kids with mental health.”

Victor Valley Unified School District - Example of Curriculum of Family & Staff Classes

Lastly, Danielle McClain-Parks, LCSW, Mental Health Services Coordinator at Palm Springs Unified School District in California, shared how important it is to have conversations about mental health in different settings with different people in the community. She shared, “We want to make sure that everyone—counselors, teachers, parents, students—can talk openly about mental health and what it is.” It was also helpful to hear from her about how they are trying to normalize using all of the services that are available to students—from on-site wellness centers to teletherapy—and teach students how to identify their own mental health needs and advocate for them. Destigmatizing mental health is important and teaches kids that “mental health is another need that you have and will need to address throughout your life”.

2. Create systems of support that work best for your community

Mayra shared that one of the key benefits of the mental health screener was that it helped to identify issues that the community was struggling with as well as uncover individual scholars that needed specific interventions. The data allowed the school team to determine who was already receiving services and which kids needed intervention, like teletherapy, to support their needs. It also highlighted what interventions they already had in place and where they needed different tiers of support to fill in the gaps and strengthen their system.  

Mayra’s vision extends beyond the walls of the school buildings. At Manor, the team leverages mental health screening, school climate surveys, district mental health fairs, and direct interventions on campuses + teletherapy to open access for some students. She even has an open conversation with the city mayor for May’s Mental Health Awareness month to empower the broader Manor community. 

Manor ISD Universal Mental Health Screener Results

The class curriculum that was put into place by Diana’s team at VVUSD was determined based on the issues that were most impacting their specific community. All of their classes were offered in English and Spanish and were strategically scheduled at key times of year when kids and families may be struggling with specific issues. For example, before winter break they held a class around grief and loss since there are a lot of heavy emotions this time of year for both kids and families.

MTSS: Thinking through what part of the triangle your community needs the most focus on.

3. Ensure every student has equitable access to mental health support

Danielle called out a challenge that most districts and in-school mental health teams are struggling with right now: a rise in student needs, increased caseloads, maxed out capacity, and long waitlists for community providers. The PSUSD mental health program includes on-campus clinical therapists, mental health specialists, peer specialists, and wellness centers. But, there was still a gap for students that have mild to moderate mental health needs.

A Support Guide for In-School Mental Health Teams

Teletherapy is a tier 3 support that helps the PSUSD team provide equitable access to students who are struggling with needs that are “affecting their ability to learn.” Equity was a major priority and with teletherapy, students have faster access to care, the flexibility to meet with their therapist at a time and place they feel most comfortable, and are matched with a clinician who is a good fit for them culturally.

PSUSD counselors collaborate with the therapist on the student’s treatment and progress throughout the 12-week program, with 100% of them sharing that they have seen an improvement in students’ symptoms since starting the program. Danielle shared that the program helps kids to “build the skills they need to manage their issues on their own in the future” and prevents them from needing additional specialty mental health services. Families also have touchpoints with the therapist to share progress and discuss observations about how the teen is doing at home.

Every student has access to free teletherapy, regardless of their insurance status. Districts can directly sponsor teletherapy sessions for students or work with a students insurance for reimbursement.

Make sure to take some time to watch the full webinar here. Each panelist shared some best practices, actionable insights and even implementation plans that other districts could leverage to create multi-tiered systems of mental health support for students.


Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

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