Prioritizing Mental Health in Schools: Insights from District Leaders and Experts

(The live discussion is a must-watch! The fully recorded video is at the end of this blog post.)
“Mental health is health.” Jillian Kelton, Chief of Student Support, Boston Public Schools

As the new school year begins, the challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to affect students and staff, manifesting as post-pandemic anxiety, stress, and trauma. In a live discussion, district leaders and mental health experts gathered to explore actionable ways for schools to provide vital support for the mental health and well-being of their school communities. Here are some of the key insights from this panel discussion.

Meet the Panelists:

Jillian Kelton, Chief of Student Support, Boston Public Schools
Earnest Winston, Former Superintendent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Juan Treviño, MSW, LCSW, Clinical Director, Daybreak Health

Jillian Kelton: A Large District Perspective

Jillian shared insights into Boston Public School’s priorities and initiatives regarding student mental health for the ‘23-’24 school year:

  1. Building Relationships: They emphasize relationship-building as a foundational aspect of mental health support. The district is committed to understanding how students are returning to school and ensuring they have a strong network of support. As Jillian said, “A lot can happen in a summer that can shift a young person’s life” so it’s important to create meaningful connections in every classroom and building. 
  2. Tier 1 Check-Ins: The district conducts Tier 1 check-ins with all students, fostering meaningful connections in every classroom. This approach encourages students to reach out when they need help, creating a safe space for mental health discussions.
  3. Restorative Learning Environments: Recognizing the importance of adult well-being, Boston Public Schools is revisiting strategies to create restorative learning environments. This includes the creation of Restorative Practices positions to build a climate where genuine connections can thrive. School staff need to feel that they have the support they need so that they can help foster a climate where true connections can happen.
  4. Community and Family Engagement: She shared that “education should extend beyond the walls of our school buildings,” and Boston Public Schools actively seeks to build bridges with community partners and families. They prioritize open lines of communication, emphasizing familiarity with restorative practices. 

Juan Treviño: Insights from Clinical Practice

Juan Treviño, Clinical Director at Daybreak Health, provided insights into the mental health challenges students are currently facing:

  1. Varied Student Challenges: Juan emphasized the diverse range of challenges students are confronting, with prevalent symptoms including anxiety, school avoidance, and academic struggles, relationship issues. 
  2. Determining Root Causes: Many of these challenges are linked to larger issues such as acceptance, belonging, economic stressors, substance use, and familial issues. Juan underlined that all these challenges have mental health implications.
  3. The Impact of ACES and the Pandemic: ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the pandemic have intensified these challenges. Financial struggles, coupled with social media and social pressures, have contributed to the growing mental health issues among students. But, as Juan said, “when we can identify these needs early, we can provide students and teachers with the tools and resources they need to deal with these stressors.” 
  4. Access and Stigma: Access to care is a challenge, and there remains a stigma around seeking therapy. Juan emphasized the importance of breaking down this stigma and providing access to early interventions.

Supporting Students During the Transition Back-to-School

Both Jillian and Juan provided tangible tools and takeaways for teachers and school staff to support students during their transition back to school:

  • The Importance of Relationships: School staff should build strong relationships with students to understand their needs, as students are more likely to reach out for help when they have a personal connection.
  • Basic Needs: Pay attention to students' basic needs and offer insight into their well-being.
  • Resource Referral: Teachers don't need to have all the answers; they can refer students or parents to available resources.
  • Non-Academic Engagement: Take an interest in students' non-academic interests to foster a sense of belonging.

Ensuring Mental Health Programs are Sustainable

Earnest Winston addressed the issue of sustaining mental health programs in the face of declining COVID-relief funding and noted that school district leaders have likely been preparing and prioritizing for this for some time. Here are some of the strategies he suggests:

  • Diversify Funding Sources: Seek funding from multiple sources, including grants (private and philanthropic organizations), government funds (state and local level), and partnerships (business and faith community). Earnest noted, “This is a community issue. We should not tackle this crisis alone. We need everyone at the table.” Insurance companies can also help to share these costs with districts.
  • Integration into School Culture: Make mental health services an integral part of the school culture, rather than viewing them as add-ons.
  • Use Data-Driven Results: Demonstrate the effectiveness of mental health services with data to secure continued funding. Need to be able to prove the impact through the data. At Daybreak, we've been able to prove that 81% of students who participate in our teletherapy programs improve symptomatically on the GAD/PHQ.

Engaging Families in Mental Health Support

Jillian discussed the critical role of family involvement in supporting students' mental health. She talked about how BPS is “actively reaching out to parents. No soft knocks….it’s the hard knocks that matter so families know what we are here to help. Our parents need to be engaged.” 

“Access to quality healthcare is not equitable. We need to work collaboratively and provide services that wrap around young people and give them access to the resources they need. The pandemic has shined a light on mental health and its role in schools. Prior to the pandemic, educational institutions focused on teaching and learning. Of course that’s our primary goal. But we now understand that kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe, supported, if their basic needs aren’t being met. In order to be successful in the classroom, we need to meet student’s other needs as well. At the crux of it all is relationships. Relationships with students, families, and our communities. This requires a village approach.” - Jillian Kelton

  • Education and Resources: Collaborate with community agencies to provide education and resources to help families understand the importance of mental health and help to de-stigmatize perceptions.
  • Flexible Communication: Adapt communication to accommodate working families, ensuring availability and openness.
  • Creating Trust: Build relationships with families so that conversations about mental health are grounded in trust.
  • Community-Based Resources: Consider allowing space for health centers within schools, facilitating access to support resources.

Supporting Staff Mental Health

Juan addressed the importance of supporting school staff's mental health.

  • Awareness of Burnout: Recognize staff burnout and encourage open conversations about mental health within the staff community.
  • Access to Resources: Provide resources for staff well-being, including professional development opportunities for self-care and mindfulness.
  • Positive School Environment: Foster a positive school environment that encourages staff and students to identify their needs.

Tackling Chronic Absenteeism

Jillian talked about creating access points for families. Both students and families need to have a voice in their care. They need to feel valued and that their voice is being heard. Districts need to prove to students and families that they are going to follow through, that their voice is important, and that they want to collaborate.

  • Building Trust: To understand students' needs, schools must first know their students. Strong relationships are crucial.
  • Increased Mental Health Support: Schools should increase access to mental health support and resources, coupled with regular screening to uncover needs earlier and often.
  • Community Engagement: Engage with the community through home visits and by connecting with relevant providers.
  • Holistic Approach: Develop holistic support plans for students with chronic absenteeism, involving community-based resources.

Institutionalizing a Mentally Healthy Culture

Earnest highlighted steps for institutionalizing a mentally healthy culture in schools and communities:

  • Destigmatization: Encourage open conversations and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health support.
  • Training: Provide mental health training for teachers and staff on how to address these issues. He said “they didn’t go to school for this, the onus is on us to equip them with the skills they need.
  • Parent Engagement: Engage parents in supporting their children's well-being.

This passionate discussion underscored the critical importance of prioritizing mental health in schools. By building relationships, providing resources, supporting staff, and engaging families, schools can create environments where students and educators thrive mentally, emotionally, and academically. Additionally, sustainable funding and the integration of mental health services into the school culture are key to ensuring ongoing support for student and staff mental health.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

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