Schools Play a Critical Role in Promoting Student Mental Health

This week the Washington Post reports that the Centers for Disease Control is warning of a worsening mental health crisis among our nation’s youth.  The CDC has now looked at data from a study of more than 7,000 young people across the country and find an alarming increase in anxiety, depression, suicidality and drug use since the beginning of the pandemic. Further, they report that these mental health challenges are more severe for LGBTQ students, students of color and girls. These CDC findings are corroborated by other recent studies of student mental health and anyone who works in schools and other youth serving systems has seen this public health crisis unfolding first-hand. In the school districts where we have worked, school counseling staff are often overwhelmed with daily student crises and schools are seeing spikes in interpersonal violence in both middle and high schools.

This is not the first time in the past year that officials have concluded that youth in the US are experiencing a mental health crisis – the American Academy of Pediatrics, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona have made similar declarations.

And while the picture is certainly alarming, it is encouraging to see that the federal government is responding. In recent days we’ve learned of increases in federal funding for mental health and addiction services with a planned 30% increase in the 2023 budget for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and increased funding for school-based mental health programming 

Investing in schools makes good sense. Schools play an increasingly important role in responding to and preventing mental health and substance use challenges for students.  The silver lining in the CDC study is the finding that students with a strong connection to their schools report significantly better mental health outcomes. 

Our colleagues in juvenile justice settings across the country have in many ways been out ahead of the curve and have for the past decade really been re-examining their role in the broader public health continuum for youth from prevention to treatment.  Increasing numbers of juvenile justice jurisdictions have recognized the importance of looking upstream and building strong school-justice collaborations that bolster school’s ability to recognize treatment need early…and to see the relationship between treatment need and behaviors that typically trigger disciplinary action in order to avoid unnecessary referrals to juvenile court.  Beyond simply pushing back against the national trend of over-burdening juvenile courts with truancy referrals and other minor behavioral infractions, some jurisdictions have taken things a step further and invested significant energy and in some cases funding, in collaborating with schools to build effective mental health prevention programming. 

Our Reclaiming Futures site in Clackamas County Oregon is a great example of this kind of collaborative thinking where Juvenile Department Director Christina McMahon and her team are breaking ground with an innovative new model for partnering with the community-based organizations and the middle and high schools in her jurisdiction.  McMahon is leading an effort to bring universal SBIRT to the schools in her county.  According to McMahon:  “People may wonder why a juvenile department is so invested in supporting schools and for us the answer is simple – our mission is to support the well-being of the youth and families in our community and everything we know about public health points to intervening and investing as far upstream as possible. Schools are a logical place to partner”

The willingness of juvenile justice stakeholders to look upstream and partner with schools has been a catalyst for an important shift in our work here at Reclaiming Futures. And it has been our Reclaiming Futures sites in Clackamas OR and in King County WA, that have pointed us in that direction.

In King County, our school-based screening and brief intervention model (SB-SBIRT) has been implemented in more than 50 middle and high schools with more than 20,000 students screened and has emerged as an effective and efficient way to identify and respond to the mental health needs of students. Students who participate in the Reclaiming Futures School-Based SBIRT program report increased sense of positive connection to their school, stronger connections to caring adults, and trust in the process.

Without a universal screening process, schools often miss students who are struggling. In King County, WA, where our model is being used, one of the compelling findings is that, of the thousands of students screened, 22% indicated a need that was previously unknown by school counselors, and over half of those had two or more new needs identified. Among those who engaged in a brief intervention, 46% had a new need identified. Of course, identifying needs is only the first step toward addressing the challenge, and our model provides a roadmap and support to complete all the steps. We have worked hard to develop effective and efficient strategies for schools as well as resources to make implementation go smoothly, such as our recently released Implementation Playbook.

We encourage Juvenile Justice departments and school districts alike who are interested in implementing our School-Base SBIRT model to get in touch and discuss how we can support your efforts. Contact with your questions


Updated: April 05 2022