The biggest challenge facing mental health care providers right now, experts say, is a shortage of providers trained to meet the mounting needs of children and adolescents.

“There’s a growing recognition that mental health is just as important as physical health in young people’s development, but that’s happening just as mental health services are under extreme strain,” said clinical psychologist Robin Gurwitch, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center.

Schools, for example, are a key way to reach and help children—but a 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that only about half of U.S. public schools offer mental health assessments and even fewer offer treatment services. Psychologists are now ramping up efforts to better equip schools to support student well-being onsite.

Much of that work involves changing policies at the school or district level to provide more support for all students. For example, school connectedness—the degree to which young people feel that adults and peers at school care about them and are invested in their success—is a key contributor to mental health. Youth who felt connected during middle and high school have fewer problems with substance use, mental health, suicidality, and risky sexual behavior as adults (Steiner, R. J., et al., Pediatrics, Vol. 144, No. 1, 2019).

Through its What Works in Schools program, the CDC funds school districts to make changes that research shows foster school connectedness. Those include improving classroom management, implementing service-learning programs for students in their communities, bringing mentors from the community into schools, and making schools safer and more supportive for LGBTQ+ students.

Psychologists are also building training programs to help teachers and other school staff create supportive classrooms and aid students who are in distress. Classroom Wise (Well-Being Information and Strategies for Educators), developed by the Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network and the University of Maryland’s National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH), is a free, flexible online course and resource library that draws on psychological research on social-emotional learning, behavioral regulation, mental health literacy, trauma, and more (Evidence-Based Components of Classroom Wise (PDF, 205KB), NCSMH, 2021).

“We’re using evidence-based practices from child and adolescent mental health but making these strategies readily available for teachers to apply in the classroom,” said clinical psychologist Nancy Lever, PhD, codirector of NCSMH, who helped develop Classroom Wise.

The course incorporates the voices of students and educators and teaches actionable strategies such as how to create rules and routines that make classrooms feel safe and how to model emotional self-regulation. The strategies can be used by anyone who interacts with students, from teachers and administrators to school nurses, coaches, and bus drivers.

“What we need is to build capacity through all of the systems that are part of children’s lives—in families, in schools, in the education of everybody who interacts with children,” said psychologist Ann Masten, PhD, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota.

Other training efforts focus on the students themselves. Given that preteens and teenagers tend to seek support from their peers before turning to adults, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) created conversation cards to equip kids with basic skills for talking about suicide. The advice, available in English and Spanish, includes how to ask about suicidal thoughts, how to listen without judgment, and when to seek guidance from an adult (Talking About Suicide With Friends and Peers, NCTSN, 2021).

While training people across the school population to spot and address mental health concerns can help reduce the strain on mental health professionals, there will always be a subset of students who need more specialized support.

Telehealth, nearly ubiquitous these days, is one of the best ways to do that. In South Carolina, psychologist Regan Stewart, PhD, and her colleagues colaunched the Telehealth Outreach Program at the Medical University of South Carolina in 2015. Today, nearly every school in the state has telehealth equipment (Wi-Fi and tablets or laptops that kids can use at school or take home) and access to providers (psychology and social work graduate students and clinicians trained in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy). Students who need services, which are free thanks to grant funding or covered by Medicaid, meet one-on-one with their clinician during the school day or after hours (American Psychologist, Vol. 75, No. 8, 2020).

“We learned a lot about the use of technology during the pandemic,” Ethier said. “At this point, it’s very much a matter of having sufficient resources so more school districts can access those sources of care.”


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