If you ask teachers, administrators, and specialized instructional personnel what they see as a frequent barrier to student achievement, many will say mental health, social and emotional, or behavioral concerns. LDA has been in the forefront in explaining the effects of these co-occurring conditions on students with learning disabilities – through its committee activities, publications, and national conference offerings.
Now, perhaps due to recent tragic school violence incidents, some members of Congress have turned greater attention to school mental health. LDA applauds these efforts, while also making the public aware that not all perpetrators have mental illness, nor are they necessarily individuals with learning or other disabilities. That said, research shows one in five youth (20 percent) has a mental illness. About half of individuals with mental illness experience the onset of the condition by age 14, and over one-third of students age 14 and older with a mental illness drops out of school.
Students with access to well-trained mental health providers in their school are ten times more likely to seek support than peers in schools lacking these personnel. Unfortunately there are many school districts without the resources or adequate investments to ensure students have access to school mental health professionals – school social workers, school psychologists, and school counselors. These professionals are trained to address a range of social and emotional and mental health problems and also refer students and families to affordable community services. Collectively they provide students with a safe, nurturing learning environment and support teachers and administrators, as well.
Just recently Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) introduced companion bills in the House (H.R. 6775) and Senate (S. 3427), titled the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act. Prior to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act contained a small competitive grant by the same name, which provided a small amount of seed money to school districts to hire school mental health providers.
The current bill expands on the previous program through two types of five-year renewable grants, with the continued purpose of helping school districts expand the number of school social workers, school psychologists, and school counselors. All state departments of education would receive a base allotment grant based proportionally on the number of elementary and secondary students in each state. The minimum grant amount would be $1 million. State departments of education could also apply for a competitive need-based grant, with the requirement that the state match at least one-half of the grant amount. The focus of the need-based grants is to achieve at least the minimum ratios of mental health professionals to students as designated by the three groups’ professional organizations.
Having sufficient highly-qualified mental health providers in schools is cost-effective and will ensure more students are able to be academically successful. As for the effect on the heightened school safety conversation, additional mental health professionals in schools will allow for prevention, earlier identification, and earlier intervention for at risk students. The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act is just one of a number of efforts to provide students access to care before a crisis occurs. LDA will be helping to find co-sponsors for these important bills and will keep LDA members informed as the legislative process moves forward.