Half of all lifetime diagnosable mental health conditions begin by the age of 14.* Schools can play a major support role during these critical years.

What Is the Role of Mental Health Professionals in Schools?

Whether you’re a parent, principal, or doctor, it’s important to consider the role schools play in identifying and addressing mental health issues. For many young people, the warning signs of mental health disorders become apparent in the school setting. If not properly diagnosed and treated, they can develop into significant health issues—or worse.

Parents may ask: “What is the one mental health sign I can look for in my child?”

There’s no easy answer, and a further challenge is that there’s a fine line between common difficulties and significant mental health concerns—and it’s difficult for those without degrees in counseling, social work, or psychology to identify where a problem falls. But it’s important that someone in their world can, as one in five school-aged children experience at least one of the following:

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Family Issues

Loneliness Rejection Eating disorders
Disabilities Suicidal thoughts Sexuality concerns
Academic performance Alcohol and substance abuse Peer pressure
Social anxiety

Who’s responsible for helping these children and adolescents? Family-initiated private mental health care is not always an option. School counselors serve the entire student body, and while they may hold an MS in School Counseling, they aren’t able to serve as one-on-one mental health counselors for individual students. However, when school districts team up with mental health professionals who have expertise in the general student body needs, they create opportunities for conversations that can lead to necessary outside treatment.

One school might have a need for someone with a PhD in Psychology who can identify the signs of depression in students. Another might require a professional with an MS in Addiction Counseling who can help children facing drug and alcohol issues. A care team that includes a social worker with a graduate degree (such as a Master of Social Work or MSW) might benefit districts with a high number of government case workers assigned to their families. Oftentimes, a school psychologist is responsible for diagnosing learning disabilities and providing therapy to treat behavioral and emotional issues. They can also address specific needs, including:

  • Helping families deal with crisis and loss.
  • Classroom interventions.
  • Conflict and problem resolution.
  • Helping students overcome obstacles.

This level of support allows the school counselor to put his or her MS in School Counseling degree to good use on a more academic front—acting as an academic advisor, directing students toward the best college fit, and advocating for students as needed.

What is the mechanism for funding mental health support in schools?

Cost is one of the primary obstacles schools face as they try to secure the support of a mental health team. They typically consider funding opportunities like Medicaid or private funding. In some areas, private mental health providers have opened afterschool programs for children who face especially challenging situations, such as abuse, neglect, poverty, drug exposure, aggression, and even separation from their families.

In the end, whether a child or adolescent works with a professional holding an MS in Addiction Counseling, MS in School Counseling, or a PhD in Psychology, when schools team up with mental health professionals, they’re taking an important step in giving their students the support—in school and in life—they need.

*Richardson, T., M. Morrissette, and L. Zucker, School-Based Adolescent Mental Health Programs, Social Work Today, on the Internet at www.socialworktoday.com/archive/111312p24.shtml.

†National Association of School Psychologists, School Psychologists: Providing Mental Health Services to Improve the Lives and Learning of Children and Youth, on the Internet at www.nasponline.org.

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