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Schools can play role in students’ mental health

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By Natasha K. Bowen

The Surgeon General reported in 2000 that 10 percent of American children and adolescents experience significant mental-health problems.

Of these young people, only a fraction receive treatment for their condition.

Given the current lack of infrastructure, funding and political commitment to children’s mental health at federal and state levels, it is unlikely this picture will improve soon.

Public schools may be well suited to take on an enhanced mental-health role.

Daily contact with students places teachers and other school staff in a good position to monitor their emotional, behavioral, and academic functioning and to identify students in distress.

A number of mental-health practitioners are already present in most schools, at least part-time, including social workers, counselors, psychologists and some nurses.

In addition, the common location makes it easier for professionals to engage young people in need of services, and easier for students to seek out services they might not otherwise obtain.

State and federally-mandated accountability programs reward and sanction principals and teachers for the test scores of their students as if they are solely responsible for student academic outcomes.

Is it fair to ask schools to also take on the mental-health needs of their students as well?

Yes, if the request is accompanied by appropriate resources and greater understanding of how student mental health and academic performance reflect influences in all domains of children’s lives.

Substantial research from disciplines such as social work, sociology, psychology and the developmental sciences indicates that the emotional, social and behavioral health of young people, as well as their academic performance, depends on what is going on in their neighborhoods, families and peer systems, as well as in the hallways and classrooms of their schools.

Community norms, media messages and policies affecting family well-being, such as living-wage laws, health-insurance availability and affordable housing policies, also influence mental health and academic performance.

Students are unlikely to achieve academically if their mental-health needs are unmet.

Therefore, schools striving to meet accountability standards should be interested in providing effective mental-health services.

But schools must not be held solely responsible for the academic performance or the mental health of students.

Adequate resources must be allocated to schools, and members of the greater community must also contribute to child well-being by committing to safer neighborhoods, educational and recreational opportunities, better employment opportunities for adults, universal health care coverage, and other policies that promote healthy families.


Natasha K. Bowen is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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