Written by David Heine
Negative trends in youth anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges in recent years are worrying. Because children spend most of their day in school, districts are in a unique position to identify problems and provide services that promote well-being and mental health.
While the mission of public schools will always focus on student academics and life skills, mental health challenges present a significant barrier to student success.
Therefore, in order to accomplish our primary mission, public schools find that we must focus on the student as a whole in the hope that our children will thrive and not only survive their educational experience.
Before the pandemic, the US Surgeon General said that “from 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students.”
While this statistic is alarming enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the deterioration of mental health among students. In the The 2022 Association of Pennsylvania School Boards State of Education Reportwhich examined the impact of the pandemic on public education, nearly 86 percent of districts identified tackling mental health issues as one of the biggest educational challenges.
Although the pandemic has exacerbated mental health concerns among Pennsylvania youth, it has also spurred additional federal funding to facilitate and support mental health services.
Through federal funding for pandemic relief, counties received one-time emergency funds to meet their needs. A large number of districts, about 87 percent, reported using this funding to address mental health – but that money will run out in the near future, leaving schools and students without the resources to continue providing successful and much-needed support.
However, in the recently passed state budget, the General Assembly rightly recognized the large student needs in this area and provided schools with $200 million in government funding to address student mental health and school safety.
Of that $200 million, $95 million will be distributed to counties through a new school mental health grant program, which the PSBA, in partnership with Representative Jason Orttay, R-Allegheny, has struggled so hard to include in this year’s state budget.
Districts applying for these scholarships will receive a base of $100,000, with an additional amount earmarked based on student enrollment, and other school entities—such as career and technical centers and intermediate units—will receive $70,000. Grant funds can be used for a variety of purposes to meet the unique needs of each school community.
Here at the Parkland School District in Lehigh, school-wide social and emotional programs are taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
Learning social and emotional skills can improve students’ emotional well-being. Parkland Elementary Schools teach students social and emotional skills through the MindUP Program. MindUP teaches skills like mindfulness, which help students deal with stress. Parkland middle schools use the Olweus Bullying Prevention program to teach skills such as identifying feelings and empathy and building a positive school community.
Parkland High School uses the number of characters to teach self-awareness, social awareness, and responsible decision making. In grades seven and nine, school counselors offer a More Than Sad program to help students recognize signs of depression and how to get help.
Every school in Parkland has at least one certified school counselor who provides services such as brief counseling sessions, risk screening, and consultation with school staff and community mental health professionals to support students’ emotional well-being. Certified School Psychologists in Parkland provide counseling and assessment services to students with significant emotional difficulties.
All Parkland schools have a Student Assistance Program (SAP) team. This team helps parents secure community mental health services when their child is experiencing emotional difficulties. As part of the Parkland High School SAP team, the school counselor runs groups to teach skills such as conflict resolution, mindfulness, test anxiety management and trauma management.
Parkland middle and high schools have a St. Luke’s YESS (Your Emotional Strength Supported) program. Through the YESS program, middle and high school students with emotional difficulties may receive psychotherapy in a school setting from a master’s level therapist. When needed, a YESS therapist can refer students to psychiatry services at Saint Luke’s University Health Network.
The Parkland School District thanks the additional funds to support students’ mental health and appreciates that the Legislature and the Governor have worked together to provide these much-needed resources.
As a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the School Safety and Security Commission, Chairman of the Parkland District Education Board and President of the 2022 Pennsylvania School Board Association, I believe that public schools want to ensure that every learner receives a world-class education that prepares our students academically to succeed as productive citizens.
The mental health of our students can be a hindrance or a benefit to their future success. This is why the current focus on mental health is not only a response to the current crisis we are going through, but is also important to the development of successful students. I’m sure this need won’t go away anytime soon.
David Haine is the board chair of the Parkland School District in Lehigh County. 2022 President of the Association of Pennsylvania School Boards, and a member of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission and. School Security and Safety Committee in delinquency.