News and Insights

A Critical Lack of School-based Mental Health Professionals

June 25, 2024

We continue to delve into the mental health landscape of America’s youth, looking at the factors contributing to its multifaceted and complex current state.

Jeremy Glauser, Founder and Board Chairman for eLuma, sat down with us to explore the challenges students and educators face due to a lack of mental health professionals in schools, solutions to improve outcomes for young people and how his company is helping educational institutions make progress.

At what point did you personally recognize that the shortage of mental health professionals in U.S. schools was a critical issue?

We were already connecting schools with other specialists in Speech-Language and Occupational Therapy when we started to get lots of inbound interest for Individualized Education Plan (IEP) based counseling and behavior intervention. This was 2019 – before the pandemic. As the pandemic wreaked havoc on society, the needs started to escalate and we found ourselves having many more conversations about connecting mental health professionals with schools. Nowadays it’s not just IEP based counseling, but a full Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) need. Schools are implementing universal supports and targeted supports even before it gets to intensive or individualized needs.

Through your research and experience, what have you found to be the top contributors to the lack of school-based mental health professionals?

We’ve found that it comes down to funding and pipeline development

What I mean by funding is simply that outside of school-based Medicaid and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds, schools haven’t had enough funding for mental health professionals. Historically, many mental health needs have been delegated to special education. The need is there and the funding needs to pave the way. 

What I mean by pipeline is that we need to invest in programs that train professionals for school mental health interventions, and this starts with university and alternative training and certification programs. For example, California started a Certified Wellness Coach program that certifies professionals whose services are reimbursed by insurance and Medicaid payers. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that throwing more qualified mental health professionals at the problem isn’t the complete answer. We’d fail miserably if that was treated as the panacea. For example, if there’s a dental hygiene crisis in our community, we don’t start by bringing all the dentists in from around the state and country to address every situation. We start by educating the public, defining an escalation process, and addressing the higher acuity cases with professionals. We teach people proper hygiene skills: brushing, flossing, diet, substance use, etc. In like manner, we can’t expect to be able to bring in enough professionals to address all mental health and behavioral concerns. This requires a tiered approach, starting with mental health literacy education to all students, universal screening and other evidence based practices. Just as a daily skill of brushing wards off dental hygiene issues, daily mindfulness can do the same for student well-being. Just as flossing is a healthy hygiene habit, social emotional skills develop student competence in all aspects of their wellness. 

How does the shortage impact student mental and social well being?

Students often don’t have access to a mental health professional when they need it most and wait times can be weeks or even months in some areas. In addition to staffing onsite providers, schools should consider embracing a hybrid approach where they always staff virtual providers too. It’s also time that we start investing in preventative measures through universal tier 1 supports and help students and educators gain greater competency in skills for wellness.

Does the lack of mental health support influence students’ academic performance?

A resounding yes. As humans we have strong natural instincts driven by our amygdala—the part of the brain that controls our fight or flight response. This drives us to find food, shelter, safety and satisfy all of our basic human needs. 

If a student struggles mightily when they’re hungry, we provide Free and Reduced Food Services so they can satiate their need and begin to learn. If a student faces prolonged stress because of homelessness, we provide Shelter and Housing Services so they have relief to start learning. As demonstrated by these examples, if a student also struggles with internalized behaviors (depression, anxiety, etc), externalized behaviors (aggression, delinquency, hyperactivity, etc), or substance use disorders then they will struggle to learn. For this reason, schools play a role in supporting student mental health—not to mention LGBTQ+ and BIPOC members of our community are 20x more likely to learn about and receive mental health support in a school setting. 

If students attend school with a strong amygdala response system, then it’s the school’s responsibility to do their best to help calm that response so every student can begin to learn.

What is an impact that the average person might not realize is caused by the lack of mental health support?

Death by suicide is tragic and we have a lot to learn about it still. Shockingly, each suicide costs society nearly a million dollars. I don’t say this to be flippant about human life, but to demonstrate that we need to start investing dollars upstream where prevention is more effective. There are several evidence based programs that dramatically reduce death by suicide in schools.

What was the lightbulb moment when you realized you had a solution to the issue?

The lightbulb moment was probably based mostly on the volume of inquiries we received for mental health support. We realized we need to do something about it and do it fast.

How did you launch the solution?

Because mental health is such a personal and important aspect of our lives, we surround ourselves with experts. Ultimately, we hired people to the team who were counselors in schools, school psychologists, district administrators, recruiters, and of course consulted specialized legal counsel. This is not an area that should be trifled with, especially with the negative implications of not following evidence-based and best practices. From the very beginning, we strived to build on a foundation of all the right information, people and process. And as anyone who has built something already knows, it’s a journey and not a destination. eLuma continues to evolve as we learn.

Are you optimistic about the future of student mental and social well-being?

I’m very optimistic. There is more bipartisan support, grant funding, philanthropic donating, and positive ground swell around solving for student well-being than I’ve ever seen. Now is the time to address the crisis and end it for good. We have the resources and tools to do the research, develop the programs, and fund the standard practices. Now we need decision makers and systems to agree on the standards and fund it.

Check out the previous Q&A in our Mental Matters Series, featuring Laura Erickson-Schroth, M.D., M.A., Chief Medical Officer at The Jed Foundation, digging into the latest research into social barriers to talking about mental health.

TAGS: Education

POSTED BY: Jeremy Cesarec

Jeremy Cesarec