Addressing Student Mental Health With an Eye on What’s Ahead

Type: Article
Topics: Health & Wellness, School Administrator Magazine

March 01, 2023

With a school psychologist shortage, how you deploy the staff you have can make a big difference on delivery of much-needed services

We are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis. Rates of childhood mental health concerns have steadily risen over the last 20 years, and youth suicide rates are at an all-time high. Frontline educators are sounding the alarm about the level of mental and behavioral health needs of their students and the considerable challenges in meeting those needs.

Comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services promote students’ well-being and social emotional health while supporting individuals with mental health challenges. Youth are much more likely to ask for help if they know it is available at their school. For many students, school represents the only access to mental health services.

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Additional Resources

The authors recommend several informational resources on the subject.

The following are available on the National Association of School Psychologists’ website: “Comprehensive School-Based Mental and Behavioral Health Services and School Psychologists,” “Effective School-Community Partnerships to Support School Mental Health,” the NASP Practice Model and the State School Psychologist Ratios Dashboard.

 School Mental Health Quality Guide: Needs Assessment and Resource Mapping,” produced by the National Center for School Mental Health

State Funding for Student Mental Health,” produced by the Education Commission of the States


Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach and Katherine Cowan
Innovative Strategies to Address Workforce Shortages

No single strategy will solve the shortage of qualified and fully credentialed school mental health providers. However, district leaders must make all efforts to address workforce shortages maintain high standards for training and credentialing of school-employed mental health professionals.

Two initiatives to lift staffing levels over time are these:

 Grow-Your-Own Programs. Valuable especially in more remote places, these programs recruit members of the community to become qualified educators to work in the local school district. New projects use these strategies to train school psychologists and other school mental health professionals.

In 2019, the University of Northern Iowa received a federal grant to partner with two area education agencies that had inadequate access to school psychologists. The university developed a model to recruit special education and related education professionals for retraining as school psychologists to serve those high-needs communities. To date, they have trained nine professionals to serve as school psychologists and may expand the partnership to additional high-needs places.

 University/District Partnerships. School psychologists are required to complete a supervised practicum and an internship in an education setting. University/district partnerships facilitate increased service delivery to students by allowing supervised students to complete their clinical training in schools.

Data from these partnerships can support the need for long-term investments to create additional school psychologist positions. With the support of a federal grant, Newark Public Schools in New Jersey partnered with Fairleigh Dickenson University to increase access to mental health services at select schools. Over three years, nine graduate students provided services to 122 students.

Similarly, the Richmond Bean Blossom Community School District in Ellettsville, Ind., used federal grants to hire school psychologists (the school district has since retained these professionals) and support graduate students providing supervised school mental health services. Collectively, they also provided consultation with educators and families, as well as professional development for staff on mental health first aid and trauma-informed practices.

During the 2020-21 school year, six graduate students provided direct services to 30 students. The addition of two school psychologists allowed for 60 students to receive direct support. The district was able to leverage 15 graduate students the following year, further expanding capacity. The district reports that students’ social emotional learning outcomes have improved and office discipline referrals have significantly decreased in participating K-5 schools.

—  Kelly Strobach and Katherine Cowan

A Nebraska Intermediate Agency Leverages Its School Psychologists

Educational Service Unit 1 is an intermediate service agency in northeastern Nebraska serving nearly 12,000 students in 23 school districts in six counties across 3,000 square miles. The rural setting makes accessing mental health services challenging at a time when the pandemic has exacerbated the needs.

ESU 1 partnered with school district leaders to develop an approach that taps school psychologists’ comprehensive skills and aligns them within a multi-tiered system of supports framework. This approach establishes sustainable resource allocation and a process for measuring effectiveness.

Five aspects of their work stand out.

Tapping into grant funding. ESU 1 won several grants from the Nebraska Department of Education to fund MTSS lead consultants who help districts develop their mental health implementation plans. Districts weave these into their overall continuous improvement plans, which improve efficiency and alignment by minimizing disjointed or redundant efforts.

Leveraging university partnerships. ESU 1’s long-standing partnership with the University of South Dakota has increased access to highly trained school psychologists with skills that schools covet. The university and ESU 1 leaders have built a pipeline between the school psychology graduate program and the cooperative, placing strong practicum and internship students who are likely to stay in the area after graduation. An interstate agreement by which the university ensures that graduate students meet the service state’s credentialing or licensure requirements enables graduate students to practice across state lines.

Maximizing school psychologists’ skills. In the mental health arena, school psychologists have been essential for individual problem solving, counseling, conducting functional behavioral assessments, leading and participating on MTSS teams, data collection and selection of social/emotional/behavioral learning materials.

An SDU professor who focuses on mental health serves one day a week in schools, adding a natural leader and coach to an already strong department and helping to ensure the school psychologists, including interns and practicum students, are being deployed effectively in the MTSS process.

School psychologists are instrumental in empowering staff by sharing their knowledge and expertise. This support has been an important factor for educators who, without it, might have left the profession.

Building bridges. ESU 1’s 24 school psychologists, including two who are part-time, are noted for being exceptionally good at creating relationships that bridge service delivery across school departments, between special and general education and with community resources when school-based supports are not enough. Such capacity is vital for MTSS success and effective mental health services.

Demonstrating value and building trust. Effective use of resources and relationships is coupled with data collection on needs, services and outcomes, a process the school psychology leadership team has shared with district leaders.

Superintendents and principals now realize the extent to which school psychologists can help tackle various challenges, and they rely heavily on their psychologists and the MTSS process. As a result, ESU 1 districts have more than doubled their contracts for school psychologists in recent years.

— Kelly Strobach and Katherine Cowan