School Mental Health Services—Could a Washington Bill Finally Address This Pressing Issue?

A bipartisan bill up for consideration includes more mental health programs and better crisis management plans.

If every school had a psychologist, how would our school climates change? (Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 10, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Educators have long advocated for more mental health services for public school students.

On Wednesday, a bill is on Capitol Hill for consideration by the Senate education panel. Sponsored by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin and Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, the bill is a rare bipartisan effort to help American students’ mental health.

“Mental health conditions are sometimes called the nation’s ‘silent epidemic.’ Mental illness affects one in four Americans every year, and serious mental illness affects one in seventeen,” Harkin said in a release about the bill.

Alexander said that the bill addresses the questions: Who needs help? And who is there to provide that help?

Much of the focus on mental health in schools has come to the forefront following the Newtown, Conn., tragedy in December. And many groups are praising Harkin and Alexander’s support of an issue that has long been in the shadows in America’s classrooms.

“We are pleased with the bipartisan mental health bill the Senate HELP committee passed this morning,” Amanda Fitzgerald, director of public policy for the American School Counselor Association, told TakePart in an email. “The effort would increase evidence-based support services within schools, including much-needed school-based mental health services.”

The National Education Association sent a letter to the committee citing support for certain aspects of the bill including encompassing positive behavioral interventions and supports, expanding access to mental health services and recognizing the need to meet students’ emotional needs, as well as encouraging their academic achievement.

The bill would also include mental health programs in school improvement strategies and requiring schools to create or update their crisis management plans.

But the NEA also said Congress needs to go beyond the proposed legislation.

“However, a further step we believe is needed to help school districts provide a safe and secure learning environment for all students is to offer assistance to communities to address staffing shortages of professionals who are essential to helping prevent violence,” Mary Kusler, director of NEA’s Government Relations, wrote in her letter.

Some education researchers said it was time politicians addressed mental health.

“Schools provide a multitude of services designed to address physical health issues (e.g., obesity, hygiene, healthy eating, physical activity, etc.) and research suggests these programs work,” Patrick Markey, a psychology professor and Director of Villanova’s Interpersonal Research Laboratory, told TakePart. “However, there is little to no services that are designed to address psychological health issues.”

Markey said that youth who have psychological issues rarely receive treatment. That’s critical since early treatment tends to be more effective than later-in-life treatment.

In January, President Barack Obama outlined 23 proposals in his sweeping gun-control agenda. He included making schools safer with new resource officers and counselors, better emergency response plans, more nurturing school climates, and ensuring quality coverage of mental health treatment for young people.

Obama previously said, “We are going to need to work on making access to mental health care as easy as access to a gun.”

Markey said that Wednesday’s discussion in Washington could be a step forward: “Although this bill is a response to the tragedy at Newtown, it will hopefully address issues beyond school violence and include psychological issues which are often internalized (e.g., depression, eating disorders, etc.). Such a program might not only encourage psychological health in our youth but will likely alleviate some of the stigma youths feel when they have to seek psychological help.”