Children and families need mental health supports now more than ever. According to a recent poll, 87% of adults are concerned about the toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on the mental health of young people in the U.S. Nationally, hospitals have seen a rise in the number of children and youth under the age of 18 seeking emergency room care for mental health concerns. Across rural Maine, with just over 100 pediatric mental health hospital beds, families struggle to get services and support for their children.

There are far too few school mental health professionals to meet current needs in Maine and too little funding for school mental health services for Medicaid-eligible students. zimmytws/Shutterstock.com

The Hopeful Futures Campaign, a coalition of 17 national mental health organizations, recently released a report examining state policies that support school mental health programs and services. The report identifies states that have committed to building a culture and system of care in schools, and calls for new investments in school-based mental health support for children and youth across the country.

Maine’s scorecard on comprehensive mental health care in schools is mixed, at best. While we’ve made some progress engaging community partners and increasing mental health education in the K-12 curriculum, there are far too few school mental health professionals to meet current needs, too little funding for school mental health services for Medicaid-eligible students, and we don’t give nearly enough attention to developing policies and practices that foster safe and welcoming schools. Moreover, a recent UMaine study indicates that rural school districts were significantly less likely than suburban or town districts to provide key mental health support and resources to students and parents during the first year of the pandemic.

Recent research on trauma-responsive schooling conducted by Catharine Biddle, Lyn Mikel Brown and myself at the Rural Vitality Lab makes a strong case for the importance of creatively expanding and reimagining mental health supports in underresourced rural schools in Maine. The schools we worked with became more trauma-responsive by partnering with local child therapists, developing multiple ways to involve students in their own healing and helping to meet the basic needs of children and families. As we approach the two-year anniversary of the onset of the pandemic, we want to share three key elements that support young people’s healing in effective trauma-responsive schools.

First, such schools are relationship-rich. They are filled with adults who themselves feel supported and who enable hope by offering children genuine, life-affirming connections. Empathy, compassion, and care are ubiquitous in the day-to-day interactions between students and staff.

Second, such schools support teachers who appreciate the well-researched connection between empowerment and healing. They take students seriously as experts on their own experience and invite them into active partnership in school transformation. They engage with students in the struggle to challenge hurt and injustice.

Finally, trauma-responsive schools provide fair access to resources and opportunities that enable students to learn, grow, and succeed. They ask, “Who isn’t thriving?”; “What policies – in school and out – contribute to inequities?” and “What will it take for that to change?” They reach beyond school walls to provide specific, targeted supports for those with access to fewer opportunities and resources.

We found that such relationship-rich, student-centered, equity-focused rural schools foster student engagement and belongingness, decrease absenteeism and disciplinary problems, and increase academic achievement.

It’s been a hard two years – particularly for vulnerable students, their parents and their teachers. While we all yearn for the pandemic to be over, to go back to “the way things used to be,” we need to appreciate that what used to be wasn’t always good enough. Maine schools need to do a better job providing mental health supports. We can learn a lot from schools working to build a “new normal” – partnering with students to create safe and welcoming schools, developing innovate approaches to mental health support that deepen relationships and building community partnerships to help address inequities. In this time of crisis – full of both danger and opportunity – it’s both the most and the least we can do.


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