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A District Playbook to Address Students’ Growing Mental Health Needs

by Staff

If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available. Call or text 988 to reach the confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or check out these resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

As students report that they’re experiencing a surge in depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, two national organizations have partnered to create a district-wide roadmap for boosting students’ mental health.

AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and The Jed Foundation this week announced the initiative, called The District Comprehensive Approach, that aims to provide school districts across the country with a framework of best practices, expert support, and data-driven guidance about how to best support students’ mental health and prevent suicide, according to JED President and Chief Operating Officer Rebecca Benghiat.

“We want to make sure that interventions that work are in place where children spend the majority of their time,” she said in an interview Monday. “There are many things districts can do to support students’ mental health, and we want to make sure they have the tools and expertise to do that.”

The guidance—which the groups are still developing—will be an adaptation of a framework JED has created for high schools, expanded to apply to districts as a whole. JED is a national nonprofit, established after its founders’ son’s death by suicide in 1998, that focuses on suicide prevention and caring for youth mental health.

The organization’s guidance for high schools focuses on seven overarching themes: developing life skills, promoting social connectedness, encouraging help-seeking behaviors, improving recognition of signs of distress, access to mental health care, establishing crisis management procedures, and promoting the importance of keeping lethal and dangerous items away from children.

The high school framework follows a tiered model through which schools employ strategies and activities aimed at all students to foster a positive climate where students feel more connected and comfortable in seeking help, in addition to more targeted interventions for students experiencing mental health crises or other serious problems.

The district guidance from AASA and JED comes as children have experienced significant increases in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to several reports, including survey data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.

In February, the CDC released data showing that teenagers, especially girls and those who identify as LGBTQ+, reported that they are facing more mental health problems.

That report showed 57 percent of female students and 69 percent of LGBTQ+ students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, compared with 29 percent of male students. Twenty-two percent of high school students—nearly one in four—reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year.

Once The District Comprehensive Approach is developed, JED will work with selected districts to assess their individual needs and mold the guidance to meet them.

The foundation plans to do that through a survey of district staff and community members to understand “what’s working, what isn’t, the pressures and pain points” that can help inform a districtwide strategic plan, Benghiat said.

JED will work with districts for about three years to form and implement the plan, then do a similar survey as the one that started the process to evaluate its success, Benghiat said. JED staff throughout the country will be assigned to the participating districts, Benghiat said.

The initiative will start in the fall with approximately 15 districts, which have not yet been announced, and the groups intend to add more districts either annually or twice per year.

Districts interested in getting involved can reach out to JED, Benghiat said; there are already districts on a waiting list for later cohorts.

Schools play an important role in supporting children’s mental health

Because students spend so much of their time in school, districts are the first line of defense when it comes to children’s mental health, Benghiat said. It’s a critical, but often daunting, task that can leave district leaders feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to start or what to prioritize.

More than 70 percent of the 2,000 students who responded to an EdWeek Research Center Survey in the winter of 2021 reported having more problems in school than the year prior, such as low grades, incomplete schoolwork, and feeling tired during class or too sad to focus.

“What we’re really trying to do is take an approach that doesn’t really require system leaders to have any clinical training, just an understanding of what the factors are that might impact a student’s mental health, and then providing support to implement policies and procedures that are supportive of mental health,” Benghiat said.

JED hasn’t previously worked with schools on a district level, as its work has usually focused on individual schools. So, the move is “a recognition that we believe significant support and change is most effective at the district level,” Benghiat said.

In a statement, AASA Executive Director David Schuler said the new partnership and district-level guidance will be transformative for school systems across the country.

“By addressing mental health disparities in our school communities, we can help change the lives of countless students and, as a result, improve the future of our country’s public education system—and our entire nation,” Schuler said.

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