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Perspective | Supporting the needs of student mental health

The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the Jan. 29, 2022 broadcast of Education Matters: “Supporting the Needs of Student Mental Health.” 

Our schools strive to support the academic, social, and emotional learning of our students; and these efforts include student supports through social workers, psychologists, counselors, and nurses in addition to teachers and other staff members. Even where student support personnel are in place, which is not the case in many of our schools, families and communities have long known the complexity and urgency of student mental health. Most of you listening to or reading this today know a student or many students who struggle with mental health. While it is an important shift that mental health and the related supports are talked about more widely than ever before, we continue to struggle to provide the interventions and supports for our students even when we are aware of the needs.

Today, we are lifting up how COVID has shed light on student mental health challenges and how the traumas related to COVID have likely increased the students’ needs for mental health supports. Some districts in our state, including Iredell-Statesville Schools and Harnett County Schools, are overcoming obstacles and pursuing creative and innovative ways to increase mental health services for students in their districts.

Leaders in these districts know that supporting student mental health is one of the foundational elements of ensuring students can succeed both inside of the school walls and in life beyond the classroom—yet for years they have encountered many financial and logistical roadblocks in order to provide the services their students need. For far too long, our schools have only been able to employ a fraction of the school counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses that are needed in our schools. Students who come to school hungry, are living in poverty, have just experienced a traumatic event or have an unstable home life are not in a productive state to learn. Yet despite what we have come to understand, our state’s public schools are starved of the school support personnel who can help address some of these needs. Social workers, nurses, psychologists and counselors are critical to ensuring students can succeed in the classroom, but our state has neglected to direct the necessary resources to ensure they are in place at every school, and as a result, we are seeing massive shortages of these personnel statewide.

No school district should have to face so many challenges when it comes to supporting our children. As we heard today, mental health is often one of the first services to be cut when funding becomes scarce. While some districts have been able to make mental health a priority, they did so through hard work, creativity, and finding scarce funds either within their budgets or through the philanthropic community in order to be able to do so. All of that effort should not be a requirement, especially with so many other needs in our schools.

As we strive to have an education system that ensures that all of our students graduate ready for college, career, and citizenship, we must acknowledge and act in accordance with the need for these integral supports for our students. They are not optional — addressing the needs of the whole child is critical to ensuring that each child reaches their potential.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.