Deconstructing the Results of the First Mental Health Report Card for American Schools

It is no surprise that children and youth mental health has suffered greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic. With schools forced to switch back and forth between remote learning and in-class education, it has been very difficult for teachers and school personnel to keep up with the surging demand for resources. 

So many schools are struggling, and their inability to meet the mental health needs of children in the current moment has left students to cope with record-high levels of depression and anxiety on their own. One meta-analysis found that depression affects 1 in 4 children, while 1 in 5 experience elevated anxiety symptoms. Concern for the future is so high that policymakers at all levels are sounding the alarm. Three of the nation’s leading pediatric institutions, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association jointly issued a statement, officially declaring a “National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.” 

In February 2022, an organization called the Hopeful Futures Campaign sought to examine how America’s schools were handling this crisis. The Hopeful Futures Campaign is a collective made up of representatives from mental health advocacy and policy groups like Inseparable, the National Association on Mental Illness, and The Trevor Project.

Together, the organizers scrutinized policies, data, and expert testimony from each state to create one central report on school mental health resources in America. This report is titled ‘America’s School Mental Health Report Card’.

In the report, each state is scored based on its current policy goals and whether they have been achieved. These areas include: 

  • The number of available school mental health professionals
  • School-Family-Community partnerships
  • Teacher and staff training
  • Funding supports
  • Well-being checks
  • Healthy school climate
  • Skills for life success
  • Mental health education

The study found that all 50 states are undeniably struggling to provide their students and families with adequate mental health resources. And while this data comes as no surprise, given that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy described the state of children’s mental health as an “urgent public health crisis” and recently issued a national advisory on the current youth mental health crisis, it’s still appalling to see the issues uncovered by this report.  

Key Takeaways:

  • Suicide is the leading cause of death of students aged 14 to 18.
  • 31% of parents surveyed say their children’s mental health is worse now than before the pandemic.
  • Only two states meet or exceed the current recommendation of 1 psychologist to every 500 students – Washington, DC and Idaho.
  • 50% of all mental illnesses present before age 14, but only a few students get the help they need.
  • One-third of high school students reported feeling sad and hopeless, a 40% increase from 2009.
  • No state offers the recommended ratio of 1 social worker to every 250 students. The closest is Washington, DC, with 1 social worker for every 365 students.

 Critical Issues Raised in America’s School Mental Health Report Card

To create America’s School Mental Health Report Card, organizers and researchers examined current policy and statutory requirements for each state, then compared them to current data, including whether funding was allocated or available to execute the policy plan. 

Researchers discovered large-scale critical and ongoing issues. Here are some of the most significant areas of concern for our school-aged youth in 2022, and beyond.

There’s a chronic shortage of school mental health professionals. When a student is struggling, they are often referred to the school mental health professional, counselor, or social worker by their parent or a concerned teacher. From there, the in-school mental health professional helps identify the mental health concern in question, then refers the student to more specialized care.

When there aren’t enough school psychologists or social workers available, it’s easy for students’ mental health concerns to slip through the cracks. The report determined that while two states meet or exceed the recommended ratio of psychologists to students (1:500), most fall far, far below. For example, Ohio only offers a ratio of 1:1,084, while in Georgia the ratio is a shocking 1:6,390.

Additionally, social workers cannot diagnose mental health conditions, but they are critical in addressing the socio-economic, cultural, and financial contributing factors to youth mental illness. No states offer the recommended ratio of 1 social worker to every 250 students, with some states like West Virginia and Washington offering abysmal ratios of 1:15,433 and 1:14,391, respectively.

A lack of teacher training in mental health. While mental health professionals in the school are a necessary resource, the reality is classroom teachers have the most day-to-day contact with students. If teachers are not well-versed in mental health, suicide prevention, or substance use, they will not be able to correctly identify warning signs that could be the symptom of an issue that requires intervention.

The report discovered that most states do not specifically require teachers to be educated in the areas of substance use, mental health, or suicide prevention. And even if there is training offered on these topics, or trauma-informed care available, it is often not mandatory. 

Of all the states surveyed, North Dakota stood out because of its requirement that all teachers and staff complete eight hours of youth behavioral health training every two years. More states need to incorporate this type of mandate.

Regular failures in well-being checks. Regular well-being checks are of the utmost importance for students, especially during the ongoing pandemic when students were not necessarily in school full-time. While some states have statutes requiring these well checks when necessary, states like Alabama, Connecticut, and Georgia have no such policy. Other states like New Jersey recently established a $1 million Mental Health Screening in Schools Grant Program through the Department of Education.   

These programs are essential in ensuring that children who need help are being proactively screened. Mental health concerns like depression may make children more likely to withdraw from school activities and friends, so taking pre-emptive steps to screen them regularly helps to catch these issues before they become critical.   

Improving School Mental Health Outcomes Helps Everyone

According to a May 2021 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one-third of all parents surveyed say that the disruptions of the pandemic harmed their children’s mental and emotional health. This not only causes ongoing emotional and mental health harm to our students, but has grave impacts on our families, community, and economy as well. Leaving our schools to fend for themselves and struggle with the mental health emergency will cause serious, long-term consequences for all of our students. 

By bringing awareness to these challenges, America’s School Mental Health Report Card seeks to shine a light on areas of concern and point out where improvements and increased funding could have the most significant impact. By volunteering, supporting schools, and advocating for change, we can help turn some of these numbers around and give our students a more stable and secure future.

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