The State of Mental Health in New England Schools: Innovations, Needs, and Future Directions

By Vien Nguyen, CEI Intern, William Foley, Jr., CEI Intern, and Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

Is New England largely urban or rural? Poverty-stricken or wealthy? Stuck in the past or zooming into the future? The answer, like the region itself, is complex. New England, comprised of the six most northeastern states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont) has unique resources and challenges that make navigating the world of school mental health overwhelming for many parents, students, and educators. We’ve explored what states in New England are doing to support their students through mental health services and social-emotional learning (SEL) programs. We hope that the innovations coming from this region can inspire your state to make the commitment that some New England states have to improving the mental health and wellbeing of its youth.

Mental Health Trends for New England Youth

Generally, mental health in New England reflects overall trends in the United States with most New England states hovering near the same rate of serious mental illnesses found in the U.S. population, 4.2%. Vermont and Maine, with rates above 5% are the exceptions (SAMHSA, 2017). Roughly half of all people in the United States with a mental illness do not get treated; the same is occuring in New England. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine all had suicide rates much higher than the national average (CDC, 2017) while Rhode Island has one of the highest rates in the nation (Klepper, 2011). New England also suffers disproportionately from the opioid crisis: five of the six New England states topped the country in opioid-related deaths over a five-year period (Newman, 2019), with Vermont being the only state to escape the trend. Other mental health issues plaguing Vermont compelled it to take serious action. Citizens decided that mental health support was important enough to create the Department of Mental Health, which supports efforts to address mental health issues in the community and school settings. In other states, schools are reaching out to nonprofits to help provide the necessary funding to increase access to service for all students.

In 2019, with suicide and opioid addiction rates remaining high, faculty and teachers feel underprepared for the roles they are being asked to fill, and parents struggle to navigate the resources that are available. However, wraparound services like counseling and accommodations planning have increased in the past ten years. National debates about how to best support students and incorporate mental health into schools are impacting New England districts’ decision making. However, the impact is not universal throughout the region. New Hampshire is nationally recognized as a leading state in public education and the mental health services match the state’s total commitment to student welfare. In contrast, Rhode Island and Maine, which both rank lower than New Hampshire, do not dedicate a similar amount of resources to student mental health prevention or treatment (Morse, 2019). Disparities exist between White, Native, Black, and Latinx students in New England. Heterosexual students and queer students also seem to be forced to navigate New England mental health services differently. Moreover, class and socioeconomic status influence mental health outcomes in the region. The many different living conditions, such as urban, rural, and mountainous, affect the level of access to services as well.

Social-Emotional Learning: A Focus for New England Schools

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been a part of many New England schools for decades; they are now beginning to make SEL a more integral part of school culture rather than mere add-on programs. At the state level, SEL has been codified into strategic plans and even into policy in some cases. All six states have developed their own competencies for SEL in various grade bands, with provisions to review and update the standards as they receive feedback from educators in the next few years (Dusenbury & Weissberg, 2018). Five of the six states are working with the Collaborating States Initiative headed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). One of the leaders of SEL in New England, Massachusetts,  has even written requirements into its legislation to provide funds for SEL programs (Dusenbury & Weissberg, 2018). Overall, the states that have been dedicating funding and time to SEL over many years tend to have extensive programs in similar areas, like trauma-informed care or culturally-responsive teaching.

SEL is being promoted at several different levels by varying stakeholders. Research from top universities in the region that began in the mid 1990s continues to progress every year. Many studies on the effectiveness of SEL in New England schools are funded by CASEL and at the federal level by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Increasingly, nonprofit foundations have been created to support SEL in New England. These foundations have a range of functions, from promoting statewide awareness for SEL, to advocating for policies and funding, to connecting different SEL stakeholders. Several of these nonprofits even distribute SEL awards for teachers who create innovative lessons and curricula. Research and current best practices are typically disseminated by districts and nearby universities to teachers in professional development workshops. New England states are beginning to incorporate SEL into their policy and plans, and some attempts at implementation are being made. However, all of these states have a long way to go to infuse SEL into every school culture. Some lessons could be learned from the comprehensive approach to incorporating SEL into districts through a multi-faceted method that Massachusetts took after experiencing a preventable tragedy.

Future Directions: Using Mindfulness to Address Trauma in New England

While mindfulness has yet to become a coordinated effort in New England, many schools and districts are initiating school- and district-wide mindfulness programs, specifically to address trauma. In New England, mindfulness and SEL have become entwined due to their complementary nature. Mindfulness develops emotional and self-regulatory competencies that support broader SEL skills.

New England schools are connected to a variety of national and local organizations that provide mindfulness resources with programs ranging in scope. Some provide mindfulness instructors. Others support classroom teachers to build their own practice or even train instructors in the style of mindfulness-based stress reduction courses (MBSR) based on Jon Kabat Zinn’s model, developed at New England’s own University of Massachusetts.

More and more, districts are partnering with mindfulness researchers from nearby universities. Many studies have measured student gains following mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) adapted for school settings. The most pioneering among these districts have started to authorize recurring funds for mindfulness programs that had previously been grant-funded. As in many other parts of the United States, teachers in several pockets of New England are trying mindfulness in their own classrooms without school or district support.

Many educators that the Center for Educational Improvement works with are excited about incorporating mindfulness and SEL skill-building programs into their classrooms, but they don’t know where to turn for resources. Projects like the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative aim to bring the resources and information to them so that they can utilize some of the great supports that already exist in their states. If state agencies, non-profit organizations, and schools had more time and funding to better coordinate, students in New England would have more opportunities to get their mental health needs taken care of through the mindfulness and SEL programs individual schools and districts have used with success.

Stay tuned for a follow up blog with the Center for Educational Improvement’s recommendations for increased coordination between state policy makers, educational stakeholders, and schools as well as a series of blogs about the innovations and challenges that exist in each New England state.

References

Centers for Disease Control and prevention. (2017). Suicide mortality by state. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Dusenbury, L., & Weissberg, R. (2018). Emerging insights from states’ efforts to strengthen social and emotional learning. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Klepper, D. (2011). RI leads in suicide attempts, but not deaths. NBC News.

Morse, R. (2019, April 29). How states compare in the 2019 Best High Schools Rankings. U.S. News & World Report.

Newman, K. (2019, January 28). The 10 states with the biggest opioid problem. U.S. News & World Report.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Behavioral Health Barometer: United States, Volume 4: Indicators as measured through the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health and National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2017.

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