Expanding access to mental health care begins at school

As legislation like the Mental Health Services for Students Act of 2021 shows, community leaders increasingly recognize that public schools are on the front lines of the mental health crisis.

In fact, this is nothing new. Schools have always been a first line of defense for mental health care. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “School-based mental health services can improve access to care, allow for early identification and treatment of mental health issues, and may be linked to reduced absenteeism and better mental health outcomes. School-based services can also reduce access barriers for underserved populations, including children from low-income households and children of color.”

Certainly, recent events dramatically increased attention on the mental health of our nation’s youth. Researchers have clearly linked social media use to depression, anxiety, and loneliness. And, new data from the CDC show that nearly half of high school students felt persistently sad or hopeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

However, despite this recent focus on student mental health, schools were always at the front of the mental health curve. Regardless of Instagram filters and pandemic-induced isolation, many mental health conditions begin during the school years. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 50% of all mental health conditions make their first appearance by age 14, and 75% appear by age 24.

How many students are potentially affected by mental health conditions? Even before the pandemic, a 2019 study by Daniel Whitney and Mark Peterson estimated that about 16% of children under 18 were affected by at least one mental health disorder. That’s approximately one in every six children—a figure that’s still widely used today.

More startling, the study revealed that only half of those children received needed treatment from a mental health professional. Sadly, most go without treatment for an excruciatingly long period of time. According to NAMI, the average delay between the onset of mental illness symptoms and the initiation of treatment is a staggering 11 years.

During that gap, a child’s prognosis and overall well-being continue to decline. Children with mental, emotional, or behavioral concerns are three times more likely to repeat a grade, and high school students with depression are twice as likely to drop out. A staggering 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition. Further, long-term mental illness leads to physical illness such as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

For all these reasons, schools are trying hard to intervene. Statistics show that just over half of public schools are providing diagnostic mental health assessments and 42% are providing treatment.

The schools say those numbers would be far better if they had access to licensed mental health professionals. Thankfully, we now have the technology to make it happen. Trayt’s mental health-specific data and collaboration platform is being used in several states to connect school counselors directly to psychiatrists and therapists who can treat their students.

Here’s what the right technology can do for school-based access programs:

  • Facilitate same-day consults for children in crisis
  • Leverage data to help clinicians make more accurate diagnoses and treatment plans
  • Provide a 360-degree view of each child by collecting input from everyone around them
  • Connect all caregivers onto one collaboration platform to coordinate treatment

The Mental Health Services for Students Act has passed the House and is under consideration by the Senate. In the meantime, nearly every state has allocated funds to increase school-based mental health services. As of December 2021, 92 new laws had been enacted to support children’s mental health through school. Most recently, the HHS just awarded nearly $250m to support critical programs for youth and their mental health, including school-based programs.

Help is available. It’s time to connect our students to care.