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Education Equity Insights Part 2: Addressing Rising Rates of Mental Health Conditions

October 21, 2021

Elevated rates of trauma, anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicide among young people before and during COVID-19 recovery are propelling school systems nationwide to intensify efforts to tackle the problem. The U.S. Department of Education’s Region 14 Comprehensive Center (CC), directed by Westat, is supporting states its serves with evidence-based strategies, technical assistance (TA), and trainings, with an emphasis on equity-related factors, to improve student, educator, and family well-being.

Jocelyn Franke

“The pandemic made it abundantly clear that students’ mental health was suffering, impacting their overall well-being and learning,” says Westat Senior Research Analyst Jocelyn Franke, M.P.A. “We had to do something about it.”

That something is Region 14 CC’s collaborative effort between Westat and state and local education agencies in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas to establish critical school-based mental health supports to help students thrive. Specifically, the work involves identifying gaps in mental health services for students and families with the goal of providing wraparound well-being supports in schools and communities.

“The mental health supports will improve these students’ social and emotional learning, forge an equitable instructional environment, and help students become more successful learners,” says Ms. Franke.

In addition to increasing student access to individualized interventions or referrals to a behavioral health service provider, goals include improving student-teacher relationships; increasing positive school culture and climate; boosting student attendance; and decreasing exclusionary discipline placements, says Ms. Franke.

Recently, Westat partnered with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to develop a 5-year statewide mental health plan for Texas. The plan includes coordinating and implementing effective school-based mental health trainings and programs through a legislative task force and creating multiple professional learning opportunities. In addition, Westat is working with the TEA to publish a visually compelling school-based mental health toolkit for administrators and stakeholders to aid in setting up responsive, multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS) focused on student needs.

MTSS equips educators with actionable indicators to identify students requiring various levels of behavioral health support needed to be healthy, safe, and engaged learners. Tier 1 promotes mental health, learning, school connection, and positive behaviors to all students. Tier 2 is targeted to students who are at risk of developing mental health issues—providing early interventions to prevent further learning difficulties. Tier 3 offers intensive mental health support for students already experiencing behavioral health issues.

With Louisiana, Westat is supporting local education agencies in implementing new evidence-based supplemental guidance to bolster students’ well-being, such as administering a universal, social, emotional, and behavioral screener to all students and training teachers and administrators on trauma-informed practices.

Arkansas is in the early stages of developing a social and emotional learning curriculum and adopting a statewide mental health network, says Ms. Franke, adding that it plans to further build out its MTSS with a focus on the G.U.I.D.E for Life curriculum.

To navigate this work across regions, Ms. Franke points to Westat’s capacity to coordinate the many moving pieces and deliver best practices rooted in equity principles. “Collaboration, too, is key to our work,” she says, referring to Westat’s robust partnerships with the state and local education agencies and the Mental Health Technology Transfer Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is helping regional and local education agencies to expand capacity to build evidence-based mental health supports.

“This is not simple work. Successful states will be those willing to look at the root causes of escalating mental and behavioral health conditions among students and determine what is needed to address them,” says Ms. Franke.

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