By: David Hein, school board president at Parkland School District, 2022 president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and member of the PCCD’s School Safety and Security Committee
Negative trends in youth anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges in recent years are troubling. With children spending much of their day at school, districts are uniquely positioned to identify issues and offer services that promote well-being and mental health. While the mission of public schools will always be focused on student academics and life skills, mental health challenges present a crippling impediment to student success. Therefore, in order to accomplish our core mission, public schools find that we must focus on the student as a whole in hopes that our children will thrive and not just survive their educational experience.
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. surgeon general shared that “from 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students.”
While this statistic is alarming enough, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the decline of mental health among students. In the 2022 Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s State of Education report, which examined the impact of the pandemic on public education, nearly 86% of districts identified addressing mental health issues as one of their biggest instructional challenges.
Although the pandemic exacerbated mental health concerns among Pennsylvania’s youth, it also spurred the provision of additional federal funding to facilitate mental health services and supports. Through federal pandemic relief funding, districts received one-time emergency money to address their needs. A large number of districts, about 87%, reported using this funding to address mental health – but these funds will be depleted in the near future, leaving schools and students without the resources to continue providing these much-needed and successful supports.
However, in the recently passed state budget, the general assembly rightfully recognized the significant student needs in this area and provided schools with $200 million in state funding to address student mental health and school safety. Of this $200 million, $95 million will be distributed to districts through a new program of School Mental Health Grants, which PSBA, in partnership with Representative Jason Ortitay, fought hard to include in this year’s state budget.
Districts that apply for these grants will receive a base of $100,000, with an additional amount allotted based on student enrollment, and other school entities – such as career and technical centers and intermediate units – will receive $70,000. Grant funds can be used for a variety of purposes to meet the unique needs of each school community.
Here at Parkland, school-wide social-emotional programs are taught at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Learning social-emotional skills can improve students’ emotional well-being. Parkland elementary schools teach students social-emotional skills through the MindUP program. MindUP teaches skills such as mindful awareness, which help students cope with stress. Parkland’s middle schools use the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program to teach skills such as identifying feelings, empathy and building a positive school community. Parkland High School uses Character Counts to teach self-awareness, social awareness and responsible decision-making. In 7th and 9th grade, school counselors present the More Than Sad Program to help students recognize the signs of depression and how to get help.
Each school in Parkland has at least one certified school counselor that provides services such as brief counseling sessions, risk screening, and consultation with school staff and community mental health professionals to support students’ emotional well-being. Certified school psychologists in Parkland provide consultation and evaluation services for students who have significant emotional difficulties. All of the Parkland schools have a Student Assistance Program (SAP) team. This team assists parents in securing community-based mental health services when their child is experiencing emotional difficulties. As part of the Parkland High School SAP team, a school counselor runs groups to teach skills such as conflict resolution, mindfulness, managing test anxiety and coping with trauma.
Parkland’s middle schools and high school have the St. Luke’s YESS program (Your Emotional Strength Supported). Through the YESS program, middle school and high school students with emotional difficulties may receive psychotherapy in the school setting from a master’s level therapist. When indicated, the YESS therapist can refer students to psychiatric services in the St. Luke’s University Health Network.
Parkland School District is thankful for additional funds to support students’ mental health and appreciates that the Legislature and Governor worked together to provide these much-needed resources.
As a member of the PCCD’s School Safety and Security Committee, board president of Parkland School District and 2022 President of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, I believe that public schools want to ensure that every learner receives a world-class education that academically prepares our students to succeed as productive citizens. The mental health of our students can act as an impediment or a benefit to their future success. That is why the current focus on mental health is not only a response to the current crisis we are in, but also critical to the development of successful students. I am positive this need will not be going away any time soon.