Want Kids to Do Better in School? Get Serious About Mental Health

New research and a lawsuit by students in Compton, California, indicate that well-being is a key to achievement.

(Photo: Andy Cross/'The Denver Post' via Getty Images)

May 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Standardized test scores and uniform curriculum mandates dominate America’s education agenda. But evidence is mounting that making mental health care available in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools could help close the achievement gap between black and white students—and between U.S. kids and the rest of the world.

In a survey released last Monday, the nation’s top teachers said family stress and psychological problems are two of the biggest impediments to their students’ achievement. That same day, students in Compton, California—a hardscrabble Los Angeles neighborhood with a reputation for crime and gang violence—sued the city school district, saying they lack badly needed mental health services and support.

As if on cue, a new report published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that most kids who need psychological help struggle to get it, especially African American boys. Yet, there aren’t many clear policies on how to make that happen, particularly in underserved, cash-strapped districts where there’s often the most need.

“We know kids need mental health,” says Eric Rossen, director of professional development for the National Association of School Psychologists. Feeling safe, secure, and emotionally healthy, he says, “is one of the biggest factors” of success in the classroom.

But too often, schools make room for mental health services only “when the budget allows for it,” says Rossen, a former practicing school psychologist who worked in classrooms before he entered the policy realm.

That’s despite the report showing that more than half of all severely troubled kids don’t get any help at all.

Researchers analyzed mental disability in 53,622 youngsters ages 6 to 17 based on ratings provided by parents, according to the report. The parents scored their children on a so-called impairment scale, evaluating their answers on whether they were feeling happy or sad, and their overall mood.

Although the overall trend showed that mental health is improving among young people, the journal reported, about 56 percent of kids most in need of mental health services—young people suffering from depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders—weren’t getting the help they needed, at school or at home.

That mirrors the Compton lawsuit, in which students who have suffered from violence, verbal or sexual abuse, or other trauma say it’s impaired their ability to learn. Decades of research shows that kids who have suffered serious trauma are at higher risk of repeating a grade, face school suspension, and have behavioral and attendance problems.

RELATED: Why the School Guidance Counselor Might Not Know Your Kid’s Name

“If you really want to do something about the achievement gap, childhood trauma is the place to start,” Mark Rosenbaum, the attorney whose firm co-filed the lawsuit, told the Los Angeles Times.

But Rossen says getting school administrators to see mental health on par with reading, math, or standardized test scores is “an uphill battle.” Moreover, he says, who should be responsible for providing the services to kids in need is an open question.

Teachers are students’ primary point of contact, but many already feel overwhelmed, unsupported, and under constant stress from mandates to bring struggling students up to speed. Private insurance is an option, but many students’ families lack health insurance, which also requires a specific diagnosis of an illness before treatment is approved.

The best option, Rossen says, is to make mental health services available on school campuses, including screening and counseling services as well as “just someone to talk to” if kids feel overwhelmed. Though some administrators might argue that’s a luxury compared with science or reading, he says, “the truth is, it pays for itself” compared with the expense of a lawsuit like the one in Compton.

Meanwhile, most school officials continue to see better test scores as more important than whether a student feels good and is ready to learn. “There isn’t a benchmark that can be judged against,” says Rossen. “Most of the people who work with kids are in agreement. But it is not being done.“

Few educators, he adds, would choose “a kid being good in math over being healthy and well. When kids feel good they do better in school.” He’s optimistic that the evidence from the report may prompt changes, “but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”