Mental health challenges have long been something K-12 educators have needed to watch for in their students. Yet those concerns have climbed to crisis levels in the wake of the pandemic, leading to more disruptions in the classroom and increasing pressure on educators to provide mental health support to their school community.
Early intervention is critical to helping schools manage the situation and ensure no student is left without the care they need. Universal mental health screening at the start of the school year is a powerful way schools can take that step. There is plenty of support: In April, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended all children and adolescents ages 8 to 18 be screened for anxiety.
The good news is, there is already precedent for universal screening in schools — and mental health should be considered just as crucial a factor in a child’s ability to achieve. Are you wondering about the benefits of adding universal mental health screening in your school or district? Read on to learn more about the advantages and considerations that can support the smooth implementation of universal screenings.
Student mental health reaches crisis levels
While student mental health issues were a longstanding concern before the pandemic, rates have skyrocketed and schools are feeling the shock. Nine in 10 school counselors (94%) surveyed by The New York Times in April said they noticed signs of anxiety or depression among their students more often than they did before the pandemic, with 88% of counselors reporting more issues with students regulating their emotions compared to pre-pandemic.
A prevention-focused mental health intervention model has been shown to offer substantial cost savings, with one study finding it could save approximately $30,000 each year and reduce disciplinary referrals by 50% and suspensions by 22%. Yet many students don’t receive the help they need; for example, Mental Health America estimates that more than 60% of youth with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment.
Offering a solution with universal mental health screening
Many students are reluctant to seek school-based mental health services. Universal screening can help educators and school health professionals identify students who need additional support — much like screening for grade-level academic competencies.
With the current increased attention and awareness on student mental health, now is the time to take advantage of the opportunity to provide the care youth need, says Chris Huzinec, M.S, M.A., national senior clinical consultant with Pearson. “By setting up a framework — almost a ‘triage’ type situation — schools can flag potential issues upfront,” he says.
This type of screening isn't only beneficial for identifying gaps. “Often when we talk about mental health, we focus on the deficit side because we want to identify students who qualify for support,” Huzinec says. “But it's important to know that many of these broad-based measures also assess student well-being by inventorying their adaptive skills, such as social/emotional competencies, to identify students’ strengths and resiliencies, which allows educators to more successfully choose the right interventions and supports.”
Finding the resources schools need
Even when educators embrace the value of universal mental health screening, implementing the process can appear daunting. Huzinec shares several ways schools and districts can successfully turn the corner.
1. Include screening as part of a larger initiative
Often it’s easier to get buy-in using your school or district's established pathways and adding screening as a component that will make existing programs more effective. For example, a school district in a major metro area included it as part of a general student well-being focus, highlighting how it helped support students academically, which also helps engage parents. "We're clearly seeing the relationship between academics, behavior and emotions, so schools can tie them all together as part of positive behavioral interventional supports,” Huzinec says. "Universal screening can make existing frameworks, such as multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) or positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), more efficient.”
2. Underscore that support resources aren’t necessarily required
While schools might be concerned about obtaining the resources to implement screening in the first place, a secondary issue is subsequently covering the resources needed to support students once mental health issues are identified. Schools can overcome that hurdle by reframing the results as a way to improve what they do daily in the classroom. When using screening within an established program, like PBIS, which is already identifying at-risk kids, tier one supports can be provided in the classroom, Huzinec says. “We can provide teachers with interventions that help with classroom management, which in turn improves their day-to-day environment.”
3. Communicate the benefits to parents
This key stakeholder audience may be concerned that universal screening will be used to label their kids. However, Huzinec points out that screenings don’t diagnose kids but rather identify those who might need extra support. “That’s crucial considering all the traumas and other mental health issues that have recently bombarded our kids,” Huzinec says. “When screenings are used within best practices, the goal is to identify students who need extra support to help ward off more severe mental health issues."
The process can also help ensure students and families are able to access the mental health resources they would otherwise miss out on. “Through universal screening, we can help promote equity by identifying kids who may be in certain student groups that have an opportunity gap and are not receiving the services they need,” Huzinec says.
Mental health screening that supports educators
Relying on a proven screening tool eases the pressure educators might otherwise face making mental health-related observations in the classroom. While educators, and classroom teachers in particular, are excellent observers of behavior, watching for mental health issues in students is an additional responsibility some may not feel equipped to take on.
That’s why many districts turn to Pearson, Huzinec says. “Our online measures are quick and simple and provide a wealth of information, especially considering the small investment of time required. It allows teachers to instead focus their attention where it belongs: on students.”
In addition, the online format of Pearson’s tools allows educators to collect data that can help them monitor student progress and evaluate the benefits and results of the supports used. After all, the goal is to use treatment effectively to improve students’ health and well-being.
Mental health assessments are a critical component of a well-rounded support system for K-12 students. Contact Pearson to learn more about how our assessment tools can help your school district prioritize student mental health year-round. Learn more at PearsonAssessments.com/MentalHealth.