Refocusing School-Based Mental Health with an Equity Lens: Support, Engage, Empower

Updated: Apr 5

By Ingrid Padgett, Communications and Program Strategist, New England MHTTC, and Martha Staeheli, Director, School Mental Health Initiative, New England MHTTC


Many schools are refocusing school-based mental health supports with an equity lens in order to offer resources that consider the holistic academic and emotional needs of students. This focus on equity has emerged from a growing awareness of the stress and anxiety gripping so many students and families, the role of trauma in their lives, and the ineffectiveness and long-term negative impact of punitive school discipline policies.


Support Equity in School Communities Given the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, and widespread racial/political violence, including those related to the COVID-19 vaccine specifically, there has been a recognition that "mental health—which encompasses emotional, psychological, and social well-being—looks, sounds and feels different in different spaces" (Pilgrim & Rogers, 2010). Moreover, there are glaring inequities in access to and the distribution of mental health resources and supports for racial and ethnic minority communities. This is often compounded by systems that are not culturally responsive, and often don't consider cultural perceptions of mental health services.



The landscape of school-based mental health supports has expanded from focusing on service provision to students experiencing specific mental health issues, especially those like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder (Green et al. 2013), to broader considerations around ways to serve all students better. Right now, school communities are figuring out how best to train educators to recognize and address the difficult emotions being experienced by both students and staff. In a recent article, Kathy Reamy, a school counselor in La Plata, MD, and chair of National Education Association's (NEA) School Counselor Caucus said, "This pandemic will change people forever. We will need more counselors in schools, more clubs and activities that address social emotional health, and in the absence of things in place to better serve the emotional needs of our school communities, our students' education will suffer" (NEA, 2020).


The research is very clear that when a systemic, evidence-based, whole-school approach to supporting the emotional and mental health of all members of the school community is in place, students are more engaged academically and incidents of staff burnout and fatigue are diminished. States play a critical role in helping to ensure that all students, preschool through high school, have consistent opportunities to engage in high-quality social emotional learning (SEL) (CASEL, 2022). Former Delaware State Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting notes that, “SEL is a universal strategy to build resilience, cultivate protective factors, like strong relationships with peers and adults, and reduce stigma around mental health help-seeking” (CASEL, n.d.). “To apply an equity-focused lens that supports all students experiencing mental distress, a more culturally responsive, integrative, and positive approach should be used in school” (Caroline et al, 2013).


Ways to Engage

When the goal is to achieve a supportive school culture, with inclusive classroom communities that promote positive relationships, strategies that focus on open communication are needed. These efforts require increased multicultural awareness and a recognition of bias and historical institutional oppression (Brown, 2009). Mutual trust and rapport building are essential to this process and foundational to providing quality services to each unique student population. Changes can be made through teachers delivering high-quality culturally responsive instruction for all students and supporting students in resolving the social emotional challenges they face. To authentically do this work, educators must be vulnerable. They must also embrace clarity and honesty about their own implicit bias to reach, teach, and inspire students from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences and process their emotions.


Empower Staff, Students, and School Communities

The New England MHTTC's School Mental Health Initiative works to support, engage, and empower educators and mental health professionals at all levels with evidence-based resources that enhance school culture and prepare the school mental health workforce to extend trauma-skilled practices. Our efforts are designed to help schools cultivate compassionate school communities that buffer against the negative effects of trauma, build resilience for all students, and provide stress relief and enhanced well-being for teachers and other school personnel and students.

Review the curated resources below to gain insight, get practical ideas, and access resources and recommendations to help you implement strategies that ensure equity and inclusion in your school community.


News You Can Use: “Is your state prioritizing SEAD?”

Released in 2022 by The Education Trust and CASEL, this online resource reviews policies in all 50 states to highlight how states are supporting student needs by prioritizing social, educational, and academic development (SEAD) and where state policies threaten equity and diversity, including state efforts to limit the accurate teaching of history and current events.


This scan looks at five policy areas to determine if state social, emotional, and academic development policies are aligned with evidence-based best practices. It covers: Discipline; Professional Development; Rigorous & Culturally Sustainable Curriculum; Student, Family, & Community Engagement; Teacher Diversity; and Wraparound Services. Something to Read: Cultivating Cultural Humility in Education Rather than concentrating solely on knowledge of another person's cultural background, cultural humility proposes openness and humility when engaging with individuals from cultural backgrounds different from our own. Read more from Childhood Education International (CE International)—an international development organization focused on developing and amplifying solutions that lead to positive change in pre-primary and primary-age children's learning and lives.


Something to Watch: The Future of Education: Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Justice Join this session, featuring leaders and partners of the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, as they share their insights, discuss innovative programs and recommendations, and vision for equity and inclusion in schools. Something to Use: 10 Tips for Teaching and Talking to Kids About Race EmbraceRace is a multiracial community dedicated to sharing and developing best practices for raising and caring for all kids in the context of race. Check out their tips designed to help parents of all backgrounds talk to and guide their children about race early and often by lifting up age-appropriate activities that can be incorporated easily into your daily life.

Equity in schools supports every student, not just those from diverse backgrounds. And the importance of equity extends to our society as a whole in that it is linked to stronger social cohesion and connection. Building tolerance, racial equity, and a social culture where all can thrive is the most compassionate approach to honoring the dignity of every human being and instilling respect for all peoples.


References


Caroline, S. C., Zewelanji, N. S., & Mark, D.W. (2013). Handbook of culturally responsive school mental health: Advancing research, training, practice, and policy. Springer Science + Business Media.


CASEL. (2022, February 17). SEL policy at the state level. Retrieved February 23, 2022.


The Education Trust. (2022). Is your state prioritizing students’ social, emotional, and academic achievement.


Embrace Race. (2022). 10 tips for teaching and talking to kids about race.


Green, J. G., McLaughlin, K. A., Alegría, M., Costello, E. J., Gruber, M. J., Hoagwood, K., ... & Kessler, R. C. (2013). School mental health resources and adolescent mental health service use. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 52, 501-510.


Haynes-Mendez, K. & Engelsmeier, J. (2020). Cultivating cultural humility in education. Childhood Education Innovations, 96(3), 22-29. DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2020.1766656.


Pilgrim, D. & Rogers, A. (2010). A sociology of mental health and mental illness. DOI: 10.1080/09687599550023778.


New England MHTTC School Mental Health Initiative. (2020, November 19). The future of education: Equity, inclusion, and racial justice [Video]. YouTube.


Walker, T. (n.d.). Helping students and educators recover from covid-19 trauma. NEA. Retrieved February 23, 2022.


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