Addressing Mental Health in Schools

(March 3, 2023) As many children struggle with a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, it is frequently easiest to get assistance in the places they already spend their time. As many educators and existing resources are at capacity, schools and other children’s spaces need additional professionals, partnerships, and sustainable funding sources. The shortage of mental health professionals has only been complicated by the rising demand as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing mental health struggles. To address these challenges, facilities that work with children are adopting comprehensive approaches to mental health support and services.

Allies for Children’s recently released paper, “Addressing Mental Health in Schools,” is meant to spur collaboration and idea sharing by providing a snapshot of work already occurring in youth mental health spaces. The paper discusses only a small sampling of the innovative approaches that schools, community organizations, out-of-school time programming, and others are doing to address the mental health needs of the children and youth in our region. It is important to note that a lot of these innovative approaches have been operating for a number of years and have been spurred by the generous philanthropic support of our region, including from funders such as Staunton Farm Foundation, RK Mellon Foundation, and others.

Schools and organizations can help support children and youth through prevention, treatment, and intervention. Prevention begins with meeting basic needs. As part of a continuum of mental health care, prevention tools should range from individualized activities to group or mentor support. One example is having Youth Engagement Specialists in schools to address the root cause of disruptive behaviors rather than relying on policing. Another example is the Communities in Schools (CIS) model which is a national framework that invests in schools as community hubs. East Allegheny, Sto-Rox, and Pittsburgh Public Schools are just 3 of the CIS districts in our region.

Treatment modalities can vary based on student needs. Some local school-based treatment options include School-Based Therapy and COOL Zones. School-Based Therapy utilizes school counselors/social workers or contracts with partner organizations such as Family Links and Glade Run to provide therapy to students. COOL Zones were developed through a collaboration between the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and the UPMC Matilda Theiss Early Childhood Behavior Health Center to provide a stigma-free area where children can receive professional mental health care. It is a comprehensive program that includes: a relaxation/play space in the shape of an igloo, group and individual therapy sessions, case management, and more. COOL Zones can be found at Woodland Hills, McKeesport, and Penn Hills School districts.

Interventions are used to connect those experiencing mental health distress to the proper resources, which requires partnerships with professionals outside of the school. One creative intervention example is called Handle with Care. The Highlands Family Support Center started an initiative with police departments to notify school leaders when any 911 call goes to a student’s home. The notifications let teachers and counselors know that an incident has occurred without disclosing any other information so that the students can be offered extra support at school. This program promotes partnerships aimed at ensuring children who are exposed to trauma receive appropriate and immediate intervention to help them feel safe and succeed in life. New Kensington-Arnold School District was recently inspired to pilot Handle with Care after the tragic death of a 9-year-old student in the district.

These case studies highlighted in the white paper are just a few examples of the work being done in our region to support youth mental health. Additional analysis into what other programs are out there and how districts plan to sustain these programs after ESSR funds expire will be crucial to ensure that we have a mental health system that is well funded, able to be sustained and is supporting the needs of all students, particularly those most at risk. Allies for Children looks forward to working with partners to address this within our county.

Heather Wilkes, Allies for Children Policy Manager