As schools reopen, we can’t leave mental health behind | The Kennedy Forum

As schools reopen, we can’t leave mental health behind
April 9, 2021

By Amy Kennedy, education director of The Kennedy Forum

Even before COVID-19 changed life as we know it, young people in the U.S. were experiencing sharp increases in mental health conditions. Between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression increased by more than 60% among kids ages 14-17, and, over a similar time period, the rate of suicide among those ages 10-14 nearly tripled.

Add the social isolation, interruption, and anxiety surrounding a global pandemic, and youth mental health is now in an even more dire state. Recent research from the Jed Foundation and Fluent shows more than half of all American teens have struggled with mental health issues due to the impact of COVID-19 alone, and two-thirds of parents reported their child recently experiencing a mental or emotional challenge. 

The data is clear: our young people are struggling. It’s now incumbent upon elected leaders, federal agencies, and school administrators to ensure that resources are devoted to supporting them as the country recovers.

The American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package, included nearly $130 billion for schools to reopen. Encouragingly, the legislation listed mental health services and social emotional learning (SEL) programming as allowable uses of these funds; however, it did not include any requirements to prioritize such uses. Therefore, as schools attempt to bridge the gap left by closures and remote learning, mental health could easily get overlooked in the absence of specific guidance from the federal government on opportunities to improve student mental health using federal resources. This is particularly true for Title I schools and schools with high percentages of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students, where mental health resources are often needed most. 

The Kennedy Forum, along with The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and 97 other education, mental health, civil rights, and youth advocacy organizations, recently issued a letter urging the Department of Education (DoE) to release specific guidance to help schools prioritize American Rescue Plan funding for mental health services and supports as students return to the classroom. 

The letter recommends that any forthcoming DoE guidance emphasize the following:

  • School-wide SEL supports including K-12 SEL standards, universal screenings, well-being check-ups, and mental health literacy
  • Staff-wide professional development in trauma responsive practices including Mental Health First Aid and de-escalation techniques
  • Trauma-informed, culturally responsive, and healing-centered mental health supports including those provided by peer support specialists, community health workers, and others
  • Data collection strategies to identify student needs and track progress
  • Recommendations for incorporating student voices when identifying needed/preferred mental health supports

We have much healing to do as a country in the wake of COVID-19, but also great opportunity to correct mistakes and oversights from years past. Prioritizing mental health and emotional well-being in schools benefits everyone. It’s time to set a new precedent—one that will empower America’s youth for years to come. There is no health without mental health.