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How schools and the Biden administration are prioritizing student mental health

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to talk now about an issue that's been front and center this year for many parents, teachers, school leaders and even the Biden administration - student mental health. According to a new CDC survey of high school students, more than 2 in 5 teens have reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless. With so much pandemic-driven stress making things worse, schools are rushing to provide the kinds of mental health support that many families either cannot find or simply can't afford.

NPR education correspondent Cory Turner joins us now. Hey, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, you know, we have been hearing a lot about kids' mental health lately. Can you just give us a clearer picture of what schools are seeing from their vantage point right now?

TURNER: Yeah. Well, we know that rates for both anxiety and depression have been rising for a while among young people, even before the pandemic. We also know that stress can be a big trigger and that for many kids, the pandemic, obviously, was incredibly stressful, especially for children living in poverty; not to mention the unimaginable stress of losing a loved one. As of October, an estimated 175,000 children in the U.S. had lost either a parent or a grandparent caregiver to COVID-19. That's according to a CDC researcher who spoke with our colleague Rhitu Chatterjee. And the majority of these children come from racial and ethnic minority groups.

CHANG: Exactly. And as you've reported before, there is a lot schools can do to help, right?

TURNER: This is the good news. There is strong evidence that schools can play a powerful role here. Research shows kids are six times more likely to complete mental health treatment when it comes through schools than any other community setting. Think about the what here - what schools can do in, really, three quick buckets. So first, you know, many schools are teaching kids how to better communicate and manage their big feelings. The second bucket is for kids with mild issues that, you know, a teacher or a school counselor can probably help with. And then the third bucket is for kids who really need the most help, when maybe an outside therapist may get involved.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, even if research suggests that schools should do this, I mean, can public schools afford to do this? Like, do they see this as a priority to spend money on?

TURNER: You know, I think even before the pandemic, as a reporter, I started to see a shift in thinking from many school leaders who, yes, used to think, you know, you look at spending on a counselor or a nurse or a psychologist - they would consider it extra and not as important as academic spending on, say, another algebra teacher or new curricular materials. But now I think the pandemic has really made clear to a lot of school leaders that kids can't learn if they don't feel healthy and safe, that the two are intertwined.

In fact, President Biden has said he wants to double the number of school-based mental health professionals. And, you know, this is that rare moment when money may not be the obstacle that it has always been. There is, though, one problem that money cannot fix, and that is that there simply don't seem to be enough youth mental health professionals out there, especially in our more remote school districts.

I want to play a story now that is about this very challenge. It comes from member station reporter Min Xian in State College, Pa., and she's going to take us right into a classroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALM DOWN SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Stop. Name your feeling. Calm down. Stop, and name your feeling. Calm down.

MIN XIAN, BYLINE: Rachel Welsh leads her third-grade class in something call a Calm Down Dance. It's part of an effort in her district to focus more on social-emotional learning. Welsh teaches at Moshannon Valley Elementary School in rural Clearfield County, Pa. Every Wednesday, her students learn about emotions and self-regulation skills, like taking a timeout or counting down when they feel overwhelmed.

RACHEL WELSH: Today, you'll learn more about feelings. You'll find out what happens in your brain and your body when you feel strong feelings and how to notice the feelings. You need your...

XIAN: John Zesiger is superintendent of the Moshannon Valley School District. He says even before the pandemic, the district knew it needed to provide students and families with more social and emotional supports. He had hoped to do that by hiring a social worker, but filling that job opening hasn't been easy. In the absence of a trained professional, the district started asking teachers like Welsh to spend more classroom time on social-emotional learning.

More than half of the district's 800 plus students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Zesiger says many of them face stress and trauma at home.

JOHN ZESIGER: We have a lot of students who are residing with grandparents or other family members. We have a lot of single-family homes. We have a lot of homes with an incarcerated parent or an addicted parent. And so all of those things just continue to add up.

XIAN: He says the social-emotional curriculum has helped schools begin to address students' needs, but a social worker would allow them to do even more. There are state's and federal COVID relief money to pay for one, but the district hasn't been able to spend it.

ZESIGER: It's been two years now. We've advertised regularly through a contracted service.

XIAN: Zesiger knows it's important to address students' mental health because a child who is struggling emotionally isn't necessarily ready to learn. Jenn Christman of the National Association for Rural Mental Health agrees.

JENNIFER CHRISTMAN: Sure, we can get the child to school, but how do we get the child to be able to be present, to be educated, to be available for the resources that are being taught to them throughout the course of the day?

XIAN: Christman says she's glad to see Moshannon Valley prioritizing social-emotional lesson plans, especially for younger grades.

CHRISTMAN: The earlier, the better.

XIAN: Parent Melissa Elensky says her son J.J. (ph) started social-emotional lessons in the first grade. He's now in third grade, and she's seen him use the calming exercises he learned in the classroom.

MELISSA ELENSKY: I heard him say, like, if he's frustrated with something, like, I need to take a belly breath. That is not something he got from our house. But I know for sure that that's part of the Second Step curriculum.

XIAN: After two years of looking, the school district was finally able to hire a licensed social worker. She started in April.

For NPR News, I'm Min Xian in State College, Pa.

CHANG: OK. We are back now with NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. And, Cory, we heard from one parent in that story, but do we know how parents and families more broadly are feeling about schools getting involved in student mental health?

TURNER: Yeah, we do. NPR recently collaborated with Ipsos on a poll, and we included several questions on this very subject. So we asked, if the kind of social-emotional wellness program that we just heard about was available at your child's school, how much, if at all, do you think your child would benefit? And three-quarters, Ailsa, said their kids would benefit somewhat. And the response was nearly as strong for mental health counseling in school.

But we also found that for a big chunk of families, these services don't appear to be available, or they don't know about them. Almost half said their kids' schools don't offer mental health counseling. And more than half said their kids don't have access to social-emotional wellness programs.

And there's one more challenge here that I know is top of mind for school leaders, and that is they need to make sure that when these pandemic dollars do dry up in a few years, that all of those services also don't come to a crashing halt.

CHANG: That is NPR's Cory Turner. Thank you so much, Cory.

TURNER: Thanks for having me, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.