How to Offer Mental Health Interventions in School

An anxious teenager in study hallApproximately one in six youth ages six to seventeen in the U.S. have a mental illness; depression, anxiety and behavior disorders are among the most common. Data suggest that youth today are five times more likely to experience mental health problems compared to decades past. Today, the uncertainty that comes along with the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly detracting from students’ mental health and well-being.

Health and education officials are hunting for solutions to help young people with mental health problems get the support they need to be successful in school and in life.

A new systematic review published in the journal Child and Adolescent Mental Health took a careful look at the factors that affect the delivery of mental health support within schools. The review includes 50 studies that document the factors that promote and detract from the effectiveness of mental health interventions for youth in schools. Their findings provide a road map of the best ways that schools can support and help treat students with mental health disorders.

First, the researchers stress that providing mental health supports in schools is a complicated proposition that involves many interacting factors. Despite the challenges, they found that programs were more successful when students and educators choose the intervention programs together. And they found it is important that any plan fit logistically into the school schedule and environment.

The school should have a specific procedure for identifying students who need help. Both the staff who identified students needing help and those delivering the intervention program required high-quality, on-going training. And the top school leaders played an essential role in creating a school culture that makes mental well-being a priority and destigmatizes the mental health intervention.

With so much uncertainty surrounding schools re-opening during the pandemic, it’s likely that students are struggling even more than usual with their mental well-being. At the same time, many schools are only teaching students virtually, leaving significant gaps in mental health supports. But the evidence offers some good news: A systematic review published in 2014 found some evidence that online mental health interventions can have a significant impact on adolescent mental health. And even more evidence that online interventions designed to prevent mental health problems have a positive effect on anxiety and depression symptoms. The review did find that face-to-face interactions are an important component of these programs.

The take-home message: COVID-19 is certainly having an impact on the mental health and well-being of young people. But there is solid evidence that interventions delivered in schools can help, and that online interventions have the potential for helping to alleviate symptoms too.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.

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