Kids are Returning to School Broken. Here's What We Need to Do About It.

Kids are Returning to School Broken. Here's What We Need to Do About It.
/Kurt Wilson/The Missoulian via AP
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It’s been a few weeks since students returned to the classroom around the country. But it's clear already — the kids are not alright.

In Brooklyn, one student told his school social worker that after losing a family member to COVID-19, he's missing classes and assignments because he just can't find happiness anymore. The boy is just nine. 

In Seminole County, Florida, counselors say the increase in students showing up to their offices and requesting appointments is off the charts.   

In South Jersey, we’re hearing teachers say they’re seeing student anxiety skyrocket — kids have lost a year of time and feel like it's impossible to catch up.

This isn't surprising. We knew the return to the classroom was going to be difficult. And the Biden administration recognized that. The American Rescue Plan provided schools with nearly $130 billion in reopening funding. It allowed them to select mental health services as an optional use for those dollars.

Here's the problem — mental health isn't optional. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has said so. He said mental healthcare should be "baked into the DNA of schools as a core service." But without a stronger mandate from Congress and Mr. Cardona's department, schools could spend their recovery funds on other reopening resources and not invest equitably in student mental health. Also, these funds are only short-term resources for a long-term problem that will continue after the immediate public emergency ends.

We worry that even if schools do decide to devote dollars to school mental health, they don't quite know where to start. They need more concrete guidance from the Department of Education. 

Let us offer some immediate suggestions.

First, all students need skills, tools, and information on mental health literacy. Schools need to invest in the development of a curriculum that promotes mental health and increases student understanding of when to seek help — from kindergarten to the end of high school. Some states already mandate this, but the majority don't. And Syracuse University found states that do require this kind of curricula have significantly lower adolescent suicide and substance abuse rates.

Second, teachers and other school staff need more robust education and training. They must be able to respond appropriately when students present with mental health challenges. This is a tall order. Teachers themselves have experienced enormous stress over the past year so districts need to consider wellness strategies for their workforce as well.

Third, kids need more access to mental health professionals. When we asked students last year what they thought would be most helpful to their mental health, this was their top choice. The current lack of school psychologists and social workers is appalling. The psychologist to student ratio is roughly 1,400 to 1, while experts say it should be, at most, 700 to 1. On the campaign trail, President Biden promised to double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other mental health professionals in schools. So far, he’s proposed $1 billion in his budget as an initial step toward this goal, but Congress needs to prioritize funding that budget item and more — not only this year but in subsequent years, until there is a robust school mental health workforce.

Fourth, kids need supports that go beyond just school professionals on staff. When 57 percent of young adults say they've had symptoms of depression or anxiety in the last week, one psychologist or social worker is not enough. Students need more mental health services delivered by community providers on site or in school-based health clinics. They need to be asked what supports would be most useful to them. They need linkages to outside community health resources, access to peer support programs, and connections to behavior specialists. They also need access to a regular mental health screening program to catch the signs of mental illness early.

Like Secretary Cardona said, these things should be baked in. But they're not, and as a result, as many as 80 percent of students who need help aren't getting it. 

We think the Biden administration should work with Congress to dedicate specific resources for more mental health services in schools. And we're asking the Department of Education to offer concrete guidance to schools on how best to make that investment. This needs to happen now. Our kids can't wait.  

Amy Kennedy is a former congressional candidate, the Education Director of The Kennedy Forum, a board member at Mental Health America and a former middle school teacher. Paul Gionfriddo is the President and CEO of Mental Health America.

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