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Leveraging Mental Health in Schools

by Steven M. Garcia - March 15, 2013

Have the tragic events in Newtown, CT changed our priorities for schools?

Calls for armed guards, teachers, and principals to protect our schools proliferate in the national discourse since the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut.  I believe this debate is really missing the mark, and should instead focus on how lawmakers and policymakers can fund more mental health resources for our schools and students.  Although I do believe there needs to be a concerted effort to curb access to military-grade weapons, attending to the mental health and wellness of our youngsters will yield even higher dividends for our nation.  

The research is alarming. The National Health Policy Forum (NHPF) released a 2004 report in its Issue Brief that revealed scary statistics about our youth:

20% of all children have an emotional, mental, or behavioral disorder; about half of them are significantly impaired in their ability to function at school, at home, and in society

Between 70 and 80% of these children receive no help

10% percent of children with mild disorders go undetected

Children with serious emotional disturbance have a high school drop-out rate of 50%, compared with 30% of all students with disabilities

However, as the need for services grows, funding for mental health programs has declined.  The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors reported an average 5% cut in services nationally in 2010, and estimated a 9% reduction in 2012.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness uncovered massive cuts to non-Medicaid state mental health spending that totaled nearly $1.6 billion dollars from 2009 to 2011.

We should be encouraged by the efforts of Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who recently introduced the Mental Health in Schools Act in Congress, with its goal to expand student access to mental health services.  The National PTA endorsed the Act soon afterwards.  The bill establishes $200 million in grants to support school-community partnerships as well as stakeholder training to identify and refer those suffering from behavioral health problems.  It is unfortunate that a strikingly similar bill, under the same name, introduced by Representative Grace Napolitano, died in committee back in 2011.  Napolitano used much of the above data as evidence to support her legislation.  She plans to reintroduce this bill in the House to complement Franken’s efforts in the Senate.

As schools across the nation drown in unfunded mandates, tax caps, and high-stakes exams, it seems that we need a national dialogue on priorities for our schools.  The Common Core Standards establish expectations for “college and career” readiness.  Yet I am deeply concerned about the mental anguish our students will suffer as they are subjected to 540 minutes of ELA and Math testing in New York State.  Our counselors and psychologists will be very busy those days as 13% of 9- to 17-year-olds are already inflicted with anxiety disorders.

We need to think about how we are helping our students cope with their developmental and psychological needs.  What are the best structures for schools (physical and programmatic) that support healthy children?  How will pre-service training emerge for our next generation of teachers in understanding the mental health needs of children?  What professional development experience will encourage our current teachers to become more proficient in identifying, referring, and assisting children who suffer from metal illness?  In this time of fiscal constraints, how will we fund schools to enhance knowledge, understanding, and resources to improve mental health service for our children?  According to the NHPF, schools play the largest role in serving youth with mental and emotional disorders, and are therefore the optimal place for reaching out to children.

What can schools do immediately to better support children’s mental health?  As a Middle School principal, I selfishly believe the tween years hold significant opportunities to determine the future success of children inside and outside of school.  A 2008 ACT study supported this notion: a student’s level of academic achievement by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness than anything that happens in high school.  Yet we must look beyond academics and examine a child’s relationship with school.  Recent adolescent research published in the International Journal of Social Sciences and Education revealed that a relationship exists between a student’s level of personal wellness and school connectedness.  It concluded that a child’s school experiences and the belief that their teachers care about them as individuals and learners impacts their balance among social relationships, intellectual development, and emotional, physical, and spiritual wellness.  In School Connectedness: Improving the Lives of Students (2005), John Hopkins Professor Dr. Robert Blum detailed several ways teachers, administrators, parents, and children can improve connectedness to foster strong health and educational outcomes.


As we move forward, equal concern should be placed on a third grader’s academic growth as their mental wellness.  We should look for ways to ameliorate the stresses on our school systems to ensure a balance of priorities.  We need for the public, lawmakers, and policymakers to focus on helping schools create environments of caring for children as individuals and learners. We must value the work of educators as mental health providers, whether teachers, counselors, psychologists, or administrators.  As Vice President Biden stated, “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.”


ACT.  (2008).  The forgotten middle:  Ensuring that all students are on target for college and career readiness before high school.  ACT: Iowa City, IA.  Retrieved from http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/ForgottenMiddle.pdf

Ashley, K.M., Ennis, L.S., and Owusu-Ansah, A.  (2012).  An exploration of middle school students’ perceptions of personal adolescent wellness and their connectedness to school.  International Journal of Social Sciences and Education, 2 (1), 74-89.  Retrieved from http://www.ijsse.com/sites/default/files/issues/2012/volume%202%20issue%201%20Jan%202012/paper%207/paper-07.pdf

Blum. R.  (2005).  School connectedness: Improving the lives of students.  Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Baltimore, MD.  Retrieved from http://cecp.air.org/download/MCMonographFINAL.pdf

Franken, A.  (2013).  Mental health in schools act of 2013.  Retrieved from http://www.franken.senate.gov/files/docs/Mental_Health_in_Schools_Act.pdf

Lutterman, T.  (2010).  The impact of the state fiscal crisis on state mental health systems:  Fall 2010 update [PowerPoint slides].  Retrieved from http://www.nri-inc.org/reports_pubs/2011/ImpactOfStateFiscalCrisisOnMentalHealthSytems_Updated_12Feb11_NRI_Study.pdf

Honberg, R., Diehl, S., Kimball, A., Gruttadaro, D. and Fitzpatrick, M.  (2011).  State mental health cuts:  A national crisis.  National Alliance on Mental IllnessL Arlington, VA.  Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm?ContentFileID=126233

National Health Policy Forum.  (2004).  Children with mental disorders:  Making sense of their needs and the systems that help them.  NHPF Issue Brief, No. 799, June 4, 2004.  Retrieved from http://www.nhpf.org/library/issue-briefs/IB799_ChildMentalHealth.pdf

National PTA.  (2013).  National pta endorses mental health in schools act of 2013.  Retrieved from http://www.pta.org/about/newsdetail.cfm?ItemNumber=3542

Napolitano, G.F.  (2011).  Facts on the mental health in schools act.  Retrieved from


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 15, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17060, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 8:28:55 AM

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About the Author
  • Steven Garcia
    Valhalla Middle School
    E-mail Author
    STEVEN M. GARCIA is proud to be the principal of Valhalla Middle School in Valhalla, NY. He received a Doctor of Education from Teachers College, Columbia University’s Educational Leadership program in 2010.
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