Mission critical: 5 ways to improve student’s mental health care

Challenges are especially severe in communities of concentrated poverty and geographic isolation
By: | February 1, 2021
Before the pandemic, one in five children had a diagnosed mental health disorder, an expert says. (Unsplash/Matthew Ball)Before the pandemic, one in five children had a diagnosed mental health disorder, an expert says. (Unsplash/Matthew Ball)

Children’s mental health care often focuses on treatment rather than prevention or promotion of mental wellness, experts say.

Insufficient investment in care programs and a shortage of providers have weakened the nation’s ability to promote children’s mental health, according to the report, “A National Agenda for Children’s Mental Health,” by the nonprofit research organization, Child Trends.

The challenges are especially severe in communities of concentrated poverty and geographic isolation, and where residents face systemic discrimination and structural barriers, the report says.

“Before the pandemic, one in five children had a diagnosed mental health disorder, a number that does not include the scores of children who go undiagnosed due to lack of healthcare and other systemic challenges,” said Child Trends mental health expert Jessica Dym Bartlett, a co-author of the report.


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“The strategies we propose would not only help children get treatment, but also call on policymakers and other mental health leaders to address the root causes of mental health disorders, particularly poverty and racism, and prevent children from needing treatment in the first place,” Bartlett said.

Child Trends proposes five strategies that policymakers and K-12 leaders can follow to improve mental health care for students:

  • Coordinate children’s mental health across multiple sectors that are currently fragmented and isolated. This includes health care, child welfare, child care, education and the legal system.
  • Develop more flexible and equitable funding streams to expand access to mental health services, including prevention and services that promote children’s psychological well-being.
  • Establish a national, cross-disciplinary education and training initiative to increase the number of professionals who work with children and youth, and who are trained to promote mental health during and after the pandemic.
  • Invest in innovative technology that can increase access to mental health care for children, youth, and their families, particularly telehealth and other virtual services.
  • Reduce family poverty, which exacerbates other conditions—such as housing and education inequities—that negatively affect mental health, especially among people of color.

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“The pandemic’s health and economic impacts have made it clear that we as a nation must invest more in promoting the mental health of our children and youth,” said school health expert and report co-author Brandon Stratford.

“To do this, will we have to face hard truths about our nation’s history of systemic discrimination and racism, which have led to longstanding inequities in access to mental health. The good news is that we have compelling examples from communities across the country that can guide us as we invest in building a national system for promoting mental wellness,” Stratford said.