How to Improve Mental Health in Our Schools and Why it Matters

Authors: Emily Ott and Amberlyn Sierra

MSW Students at University of Southern California (USC)


There is a silent epidemic that knows no borders. It does not discriminate between race, gender, or income, and it is currently affecting American school-aged children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six children age 2-8 have a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. Additionally, about three in four children age 3-17 who struggle with depression also have anxiety. Despite this shocking data, only about 16% of children across America receive mental health services. Lisa Damor, clinical

psychologist and author of the book Under Pressure, suggests that for the first time in

history, children are often experiencing more stress than their parents. Stress in young people is contributing to high rates of anxiety and depression, as well as increasingly alarming suicide rates. In fact, the CDC reports that suicide is the second most common cause of death for kids age 10-19. There are many factors contributing to these statistics including low self-esteem, social media, bullying, the pressure to achieve, competitive college admissions, and undiagnosed or undermanaged mental health disorders.


As professionals in the mental health field, our voices and social work education are key to advocate for our future generations. We have a responsibility to speak up together with parents, school counselors, and all active voters. The S. 1122: Mental Health Services for Students Act of 2019, is a bill at the federal level that will push to increase the access children have to school counseling and other mental health programming across America. It will extend funding available through Project AWARE, which includes grants that state educational agencies can apply for to support prevention, treatment, and intervention for young students with mental health concerns. Project AWARE helps to employ and train certified mental health professionals, such as school counselors and social workers, who meet the state regulations for practice. Our role as professionals is to create a safe environment for students seeking support.


According to the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare (AASWSW), one of the Grand Challenges to Social Work includes “ensuring healthy development for all youth”. With increased funding for mental health services in education, children are likely to be better students and healthier people. Also, according to the National Association of School Psychologists, research demonstrates that students who receive social, emotional, and mental health support do better academically. Early intervention and attention to student mental health challenges are shown to reduce suicide rates, substance abuse, chronic absences, and the threat of violence in schools. Additionally, mental health resources for youth increases overall high school graduation rates and helps all children to have access to mental health care regardless of their race, gender, or family income. If a child’s mental health is not being taken care of, we cannot expect them to do well in school, and to become contributing members to our communities. Mental health must be our number one priority when it comes to supporting the education of our future leaders!


What can we all do to help get this message across to legislators? Vote when possible. In the meantime, call your representative in support of S. 1122: Mental Health Services for Students Act of 2019!To find out who your local representative is, you can plug your address information into the Congressional Districts Map at https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/map. Let’s set up the next generation for success and make change together!


The Authors

Amberlyn Sierra is the Quality Assurance Coordinator/Trainer at a mental health agency contracted by the county of Orange, CA. Amberlyn has worked in the mental health field as a Behavioral Therapist and as an Outreach Case Worker, deepening her passion for mental health service accessibility. This Latinx author is the first in her family to graduate from a higher education institution and is currently a graduate student at USC studying Social Work. In her free time, Amberlyn enjoys taking her dog on a walk, camping, and watching movies.


Emily Ott is a graduate student pursuing her MSW at The University of Southern California. Her focus of study is on children and families, as she is very passionate about promoting mental health for our future leaders. In addition to grad school, Emily is a teaching artist at SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young, a non-profit organization that empowers kids who stutter to cultivate confidence through the performing arts. Emily’s art teaching background and undergraduate education in Acting has led her to find the healing power of performative storytelling. She hopes to continue to employ storytelling and creative outlets to promote children’s mental health in her work as a future social worker.

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The School Social Work Association of America empowers school social workers and promotes the profession to enhance the social and emotional growth and academic outcomes of all students nationally and globally.

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