Mental Health in Schools

The kids are not all right. Bringing mental health services and programming into schools can help our students do better and feel better, too.

Five Figures to Consider

61% rise in the suicide rate among 10-to-14-year-olds from 2001 to 2015
13% - 20% of children in the U.S. experience a mental disorder in a given year
80% of children and adolescents with mental illness do not receive treatment
443 public school students per counselor, psychologist or social worker
$1 investment in school-based social and emotional learning yields $11 in long-term benefits

Leave your gun in its holster. It’s time to reframe the discussion on mental health and school safety that began after the shooting of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Leaders have been talking about arming school personnel to protect students from their dangerous, mentally ill peers. The reality is that most mentally ill children are more of a danger to themselves than others. (Only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.) More 10-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. die by suicide than by homicide each year. And the suicide rate is climbing. Between 2001 and 2015, the suicide rate among 10-to-14-year-olds rose 61%, while the rate for 15-to-24-year-olds rose 20%. Yes, schools need more trained personnel, but the training they need is in the field of mental health.

In any given year, 13% to 20% of children in the U.S. experience a mental disorder such as ADHD, anxiety disorder, substance abuse disorder or depression, and 80% of them won’t be treated for it. By the age of 18, nearly one in three adolescents will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder. The prevalence of all mental health disorders in youth is rising, and social, political and environmental causes have been implicated. A portion of the increase may also be due to heightened awareness. Still, the costs are undeniable – 4,600 suicides a year, an 80% increase in hospital stays related to mood disorders in children from 1997 to 2010 and $247 billion in costs including those related to health care, special education, juvenile justice and decreased productivity.

How do we heal our children? We start in schools. Last month the Department of Education rushed $1 million to Broward County Public Schools for mental health-related expenses, and the state of Florida approved a school safety bill that includes increased funding for mental health services. What if that help had been there sooner? Half of students who receive mental health treatment today get it at school, and there is evidence that the growing number of school-based mental health programs can be effective at decreasing overall mental health problems. These programs, which bring trained mental health personnel into schools and train existing staff in implementing social and emotional learning programs, leverage resources. In the public school system where 50% of students live in poverty and there is, on average, one counselor, psychologist or social worker for every 443 students, leverage is key.

This year the State of Wisconsin, which suffers from a higher than average youth suicide rate and a shortage of mental health professionals, approved $6.5 million in new spending for student mental health including $3 million for hiring school-based social workers and $2.5 million for connecting students with community mental health services. Other states including Washington, Alaska, Iowa and Michigan have, like Wisconsin, used short-term grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to jump-start mental health programming in their schools. When it comes to one-on-one interventions, though, much of the funding for school-based mental health relies upon Medicaid and CHIP reimbursements, both of which face federal funding insecurity.

The most economical and impactful school-based, mental health programming may be evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL). In meta-analyses of studies involving tens of thousands of students, SEL’s focus on managing one’s feelings, building interpersonal skills and making responsible decisions has demonstrated long-term positive effects including a reduction in the number of clinical mental health disorders, substance abuse, pregnancies and arrests along with an increase in academic performance and well-being. Thinkers on the right and left, including the conservative American Enterprise Institute and liberal Brookings Institution, have come together to advocate for funding to implement SEL nationwide. Across the country states are incorporating SEL standards into their education programs. Their students and their budgets will reap the rewards. According to a recent Teachers College, Columbia University, study, a $1 investment in SEL yields $11 in long-term benefits. Safer classrooms is just one.

We don’t need guns in schools to make students safer. The data show that we can improve mental health and safety for our 49 million public school students by bringing mental health services and social and emotional learning programs into schools.


American Psychiatric Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Communities in Schools, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Education Week, Kaiser Health News,, National Association of School Psychologists, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA),  U.S. Department of Education, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence