Governance brief examines uptick in student mental health concerns
Provides evidence that schools are an effective partner in identification and treatment
Governance brie
Of the estimated one in five students living with a mental illness, only a third of those receive treatment
The most recent data regarding youth mental health in the United States is alarming: teens are struggling with depression and anxiety in steeply rising numbers. Data from children’s hospitals across the country show that the number of children and teens admitted for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled from 2008–15. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for youth ages 10-17 rose 70 percent from 2006 to 2016 and suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among U.S. teenagers.

The statistics are dire, but research into the roles of treatment, education and community offer hope that these trends can be reversed. In CSBA’s new governance brief “Why Schools Hold the Promise for Adolescent Mental Health,” Deborah Anderluh, formerly of the Steinberg Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing sound public policy on mental health issues, posits that schools play a central role in the solution. Board members are in a unique position to influence the curriculum, policies and community partnerships that shape the school environment. The brief offers a summary of the latest alarming findings in youth mental health, context on why schools have become a vital link in supporting youth mental health, and best practices and resources to help districts address this pressing issue.

Contributing factors to the increase in youth mental health issues
Besides genetic predisposition, research shows that environmental and sociological factors contribute to the growing mental angst of American youth:

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences: Research has found a direct correlation between ACEs in childhood and later onset of physical and mental illness. Children who are raised experiencing abuse and neglect, caretaker domestic violence and substance abuse, can experience toxic stress that, over time, trigger changes in the brain and immune system.
  • Smartphone usage: Researchers have noted that beginning in 2012, national surveys showed an increase in teen depression. This uptick correlated with the rise of smartphone usage and subsequent analysis found teens who spent more time on screens were less happy, more depressed and had more risk factors for suicide. Spending less time with people in real life, along with the rise of insecurities raised by social media and online bullying, are contributing factors.
  • Unrealistic expectations: A third explanation for the rising tide of depression and anxiety is the recognition that today’s children are being raised in hypercompetitive environments, both in academics and sports.
Why schools should help
The ultimate goal of all schools and school boards should be to support students so they can achieve optimal outcomes. Academics is an important, but not only, part of that equation. Lisa Warhuus, interim director of Alameda County’s Center for Healthy Schools and Communities, points to the effect positive mental health can have on achievement. “Research shows that mental health, social-emotional health and wellness impact learning. When youth are healthy and resilient, they are more prepared to access their education. They are able to learn,” she said. She added that focusing on these aspects of student development in addition to academics results in a more positive school environment, which benefits students and teachers.

Research has found that, of the estimated one in five students living with a mental illness and one in 10 experiencing challenges because of a mental health issue, only a third of those receive treatment and 70 percent of youth who do receive treatment do so in a school setting.

Best practices
The model that most experts point to for school-based care is the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. This system works in three basic tiers: The broad bottom base uses practices that benefit the whole school community; the middle tier is group intervention for at-risk students; and the top tier involves targeted intervention and referrals for individual students with urgent mental health needs. Examples of the bottom tier include incorporating social-emotional learning for all students, staff training on the risks of ACEs and how they may affect classroom behavior, and a discipline approach that focuses on personal growth and reparation rather than punishment. The upper tiers can vary in their implementation and are best administered with the help of community partners.

The full brief has more details on how schools can partner with community groups in this important work; a look at Alameda County’s Center for Healthy School and Communities, which provides a national model for how community partnerships can work; and a list of professional organizations and research institutions specializing in helping schools design and implement mental health programs.

Read the full brief at