Students’ Mental Health Needs Are Growing. School Leaders Need More Resources to Address Them.

Apr 6, 2021

By Shannon Hodge, Founding Executive Director, DC Charter School Alliance

When school buildings closed their doors to students, teachers, and staff more than a year ago, we knew the public health crisis that was just beginning to unfold could be devastating to our city. But few of us could have predicted the magnitude of the crisis we’re still dealing with one year later. Everyone has experienced turmoil from COVID-19, and so many have lost loved ones to the virus. But for many more families, especially in communities of color in the hardest hit parts of our city, the pandemic has created financial instability, job insecurity, housing instability, and food unreliability.

Dealing with just one of these issues would be difficult for any family. But for many families, the pandemic brought multiple, overlapping crises into their homes. And with the traditional way of schooling uprooted, students have had to adjust both to virtual learning and social isolation. That isolation, along with all the other crises their families have experienced, has taken its toll.

There’s no question that instability and loss from the pandemic have exacerbated student and family mental health needs. In a DC student well-being survey designed by mental health professionals and administered by EmpowerK12 this past winter, only one in four students responded that they feel happy “every day” –– a drop from 43 percent on a similar survey conducted last summer.

The question public charter schools face right now is do we have the resources to support those needs? While school leaders have done everything in their power to stay connected with students, the reality is that many schools simply don’t have the resources to adequately address mental health needs. That’s why we’ve called for Mayor Bowser’s next budget to provide an additional $6.4 million to fund the expansion of the DC Department of Behavioral Health’s (DBH) school-based mental health program to ensure those schools that don’t yet have a city-funded clinician can get one.

We know that one of the easiest ways to improve access to mental health care for students is to make services available at school. That’s why we’re grateful for DBH’s school-based mental health program, which partners with community-based organizations to bring behavioral health services to children in all public schools. Even during the pandemic, school-based mental health clinicians have continued to identify those with behavioral health needs and promote students’ social and emotional health in a virtual setting.

But right now, 80 schools don’t yet have a city-funded clinician. That means these schools aren’t able to adequately promote social and emotional health for their students. It means they can’t adequately arrange the kinds of targeted interventions for students at-risk of developing a behavioral health problem that they need to thrive. And it means those schools can’t adequately provide support and treatment for students who already have a behavioral health problem.

While it’s true that with vaccine availability increasing we can envision an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, the problems it’s created and exacerbated are likely here to stay. We need to make sure charter school leaders have the resources to address the mental health needs of students and families. That’s how we’ll begin to recover from the damage inflicted by the pandemic, and it’s how we’ll continue to help our students thrive.