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Schools are sounding the alarm on a growing mental health crisis for America’s kids

The national poll released Wednesday from Effective School Solutions, an organization implementing mental health care in schools, found that the country’s school administrators, parents, and students continue to battle a youth mental health crisis. Nearly all (90%) administrators and almost 60% of parents reported that the crisis is growing. Roughly 60% of administrators say young people’s mental health remains the same or has worsened compared to a year ago. 

“Amid the isolation and trauma of COVID-19, this degradation has only gotten worse,” says Duncan Young, the CEO of Effective School Solutions. “It’s very likely that the echoes and traumas of the pandemic will persist in youth mental health long after the pandemic itself is behind us, which speaks to the urgent need for better solutions for our kids.”

The poll of 200 school administrators and 1,000 parents who have children in kindergarten through twelfth grade was conducted in the fall. 

The poll found that addressing mental health in the early stages in schools proves difficult, and educators say they face challenges with staffing and funding. COVID relief funds have helped address school districts’ mental health challenges, but they will likely expire in within next couple of years, Young says. He draws attention to the need for more sustained funding for school districts to continue to prioritize mental health care. 

“Districts will soon largely be left to their own devices to sustain the additional support that is still very much needed,” Young says. “We cannot afford to go backwards. Our children and their futures depend on it.”

The poll further found that 40% of parents and 50% of educators are worried schools don’t have enough staff to address student’s needs, including mental health; over 80% of parents believe schools should play a role in addressing youth mental health; administrators that say they don’t have the information on funding resources for mental health programs exceeds 50%. Forty percent of administrators report a high level of confidence that their school is adequately addressing youth mental health compared to 16% of parents. 

Mental health care in schools lifts the onus off of the parents to address mental health challenges solely at the home, Young says, especially given that kids spend most of their time within the bounds of a classroom. Mental health care that works includes different behavioral interventions for people with various needs. Individual, group, and family therapy can happen during a student’s school day, for example, Young says. Effective School Solutions partners with districts to integrate this programming directly into the school day. 

“It serves as recurring mental health care, like an elective built into the student’s schedule,” he says. 

Being educated on what to look out for is the place to start. Young provides the below acronym, in his own words, to help parents and administrators tell the signs and symptoms of a potential mental health issue: SIGECAPS

  • S= Sleep disturbance, such as a student who is falling asleep in class, excessively tired.
  • I= Decrease of interest in previous interests or activities.
  • G=Excessive feelings of guilt and hopelessness.
  • E=Increase or decrease in energy – lethargy, which is different from feeling tired.
  • C=Decrease in concentration and the ability to remain focused, which can oftentimes reflect in grades dropping. 
  • A=Decrease or increase in appetite, such as a change in eating habits
  • P= Psychomotor retardation is the slowing down of your mental or physical activities. Students typically see this in the form of slow thinking or slow body movements.
  • S= Suicidal thoughts, plans, or intent. Of course this is the most profound of all symptoms where immediate action needs to be taken.

Any of these symptoms alone or paired with another are not uncommon for students to experience, but Young says to monitor when they persist over an extended period of time. Effective School Solutions operates in 9 states to serve over 90 districts, implementing mental health care within schools so students don’t need to be taken out of the classroom for care. 

“The question is no longer if our students need support, but rather what are the most effective mental health services and how can districts best implement them,” Young says. “In short, the conversation for school districts has shifted from “should we offer these services” to “how do I implement these services in an impactful way?”

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