Mental health matters to academic success

Lauren Kazee

Everyone wants children to be physically and mentally healthy and to experience academic success. Many times, academic achievement often depends on the barriers students face and the resources put in place to assist them with overcoming those barriers.

Research shows that obesity, drug use and depression play a critical role in academic achievement. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 20 percent of students may have undiagnosed mental health problems that cause difficulty with academic work. However, well-planned and well-implemented social and emotional programming can have positive effects on academic outcomes.

Schools have a great influence over the lives of adolescents, as they provide a setting where friendship networks form, socialization occurs and behaviors are developed and reinforced. Because healthy students learn better, schools play a significant role in addressing the health needs of students.

Through the Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) think.respect. grant at 22 high schools across the state, many schools are implementing tactics to address the health and social-emotional needs of youth in order to reduce health-risk behaviors and improve students’ overall well being. Through providing screening, clinical services and connecting community mental health providers to schools, the inclusion of mental health professionals in the school setting can enhance students’ mental health and provide promising partnerships across the school, community and home.

Research also shows that academic achievement can be improved through early detection of mental health problems, timely referrals and access to appropriate services. School nurses and mental health professionals are crucial in identifying students with mental health needs, collaborating with families and community partners and facilitating students’ enrollment in services. Trained professionals have the skills and knowledge to assess students’ health and provide school staff with strategies and resources to help improve student’s academic outcomes. All of this works together to strengthen youths abilities to achieve future success as productive and healthy adults.

As a result of the think.respect. grant, staff from all 22 high schools have received the Eliminating Barriers for Learning (EB4L) mental health professional development training. The EB4L pre- and post-tests from the more than 800 teachers trained showed a 31.5 percent increase in identifying the way mental health affects learning and the classroom environment, as well as a 46 percent increase in identifying symptoms of mental health disorders. In addition, half of the participating schools have hired a counselor, social worker or mental health professional, and several other schools are training staff in mental health practices.

For instance, a mental health professional now serves on the Coordinated School Health Team at Saginaw High School, and a part-time student interaction consultant has been hired at Fitzgerald High School in Warren, Mich. Additionally, more than 20 staff members at Lansing Eastern have been trained in SAFE-Talk training, which trains individuals to recognize young people with thoughts of suicide in order to connect them to suicide first aid resources.

Improving the mental health of our students is critical to maximizing academic achievement and child development. Therefore, implementing the necessary steps to promote the positive mental health of all students should be the primary objective of every school.

Lauren Kazee is the mental health consultant with the Michigan Department of Education.