A School Psychologist’s 10 Steps for Building a School-Based Mental Health Program

Now more critical than ever.

We need school-based mental health services now more than ever. The statistics for depression and anxiety are concerning—significant increases for all age levels. As a school psychologist who has recently developed a school-based mental health program in New Jersey, I’d like to share the key moves you can make to reach more students with vital support. Developing a sustainable, effective program is doable, I promise! The ten recommendations that follow will help you every step of the way.

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1. Develop a clear vision statement that will guide your decisions

Nothing complicates things more than your thoughts flying in many different directions. Keep your initial vision simple; all your smart thinking and ideas can layer in later, perhaps even in year two. Develop a statement that espouses the “what,”  “why,” and “how.”  In your statement, be sure to name the type of mental wellness services you will offer to students (that’s the “what”). For the “why,” state your data/reasons for thinking that these services will effectively address current emotional and behavioral issues and prevent mental health challenges. For the “how,” aspect of your statement, you will want to name your preliminary thinking on what the program might look like for students, staff, and families. (You will further develop the “how” in step 4.)

Look at this example of a vision statement:

“The School-Based Mental Health & Wellness Program is committed to supporting the data-driven mental health and wellbeing of students and staff by providing an array of therapeutic counseling and wellness services through evidence-based prevention and intervention measures which are built upon the principles of efficacy, education, and empowerment.”

2. Perform a needs assessment


Get a pulse on what’s happening in your building. One of the best ways to assess the school social-emotional climate is to send out a survey. I recommend you do a mental health and wellness survey for all the students and staff in your building two times a year. The mental health professionals in your school/district will need to look at the results and interpret what the data mean.

Check out this sample student mental health and wellness survey and this sample staff mental health and wellness survey.


3. Bring ideas and assessment results to your administrative team

Get administrative buy-in. Bring your mental health survey results and talk about your vision. As connected and supportive as your administrators may be, they may not understand the true need for services or expanded services in your building. And they might not understand the urgency. Sometimes the solution is a matter of reconfiguring what is already occurring and helping administrators conceptualize how services can be improved. In addition, bring information from your school climate committee (see #7) that further supports the need for student and staff wellness. The more documentation you have, the better the chances are that administrators will feel compelled to expand services.

4. Formulate a plan

This is the step that requires lots of thoughtful decisions. Review existing staff members’ talents to see what might be a good fit for the mental health program. Sometimes you may find licensed and clinical psychologists and social workers. Review how many students can be initially serviced. Start to think about what kind of stipends you can allot an after-school program. Think about wellness activities that will benefit everyone in the building. Identify spaces and furniture in the building that would be great wellness spaces for students and staff. Perhaps reach out to make connections with local colleges and universities for interns. Consider logistics such as after-school buses. Finally, review the total cost.

5. Start building staff capacity

You might be surprised by how many staff members are certified yoga, Zumba, art therapy, meditation and karate instructors. Many are eager to volunteer to teach exercise classes and/or teach monthly wellness classes. In order to be sustainable, it is wise to start small and build on what is working well the following year. For example, in year one, you might only provide after-school counseling services to those students highest at risk. Initially, limiting the total number of students who can participate will enable the clinicians to run groups and provide intensive counseling that is manageable.

Provide wellness classes such as yoga and meditation a few times a month to gauge students’ and staff’s interest. Increase frequency based on interests. Flexibility is key; for example, you will discover the best days and times for classes. If a particular class proves popular, offer it more often.

6. Consider pet therapy

If possible, offer pet therapy. After all, who doesn’t love a warm fuzzy animal? Research has shown that therapy pets can reduce stress and provide a sense of connection in difficult situations. Therapy dogs must be trained and certified. This initiative may take months. Check with your school administrators for insurance coverage and that they will cover the costs of training.

If thoroughly researched, other exotic animals, such as rabbits, are an inexpensive way of providing emotional support for students. I was able to adopt a very special rabbit from a local animal shelter that our students named Hank. We adopted him at 7 months—early enough for the local vet to tell us that he enjoys being pet and held.

Note: not all rabbits like this type of attention, so look for a “people person” one that exhibits an amiable demeanor. Vets can confirm an animal’s suitability to participate in animal-assisted therapy. Our local vet was happy to help, so his fee was minimal. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to form community relationships.

7. Form advisory committees

Parent, community, and student input are critical to success. Feedback from these varied perspectives makes any initiative more nuanced and popular. Committees nourish the work with information, tools, and new ideas. It’s best if the parent and community advisory committee includes a local physician, a psychiatrist, and a psychologist as well as some student “ambassadors.” Consider establishing one lead advisory who then offers quarterly committee meetings. Offering monthly webinars and vlogs on hot topics gives more opportunities for guest professional speakers to join also.

8. Spread the message

Social media is a powerful tool for getting the word out that there are mental health resources available. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter—it all works! Webinars that people can attend live or watch a recorded version of are popular. Keep touching base with your student ambassadors, as they can provide candid feedback on how much your messages are reaching the student body about available services. In addition to providing insight into the visibility of your program, students are also helpful with posting information. Your school DECA club members are a great resource to critique your program as they know a lot about social awareness and how to get your program recognized. Inviting your student body and staff to vote on the name of your program allows everyone to feel like it’s homegrown.

9. Collect and report data

The program should be evidence-based. Collect pre-and-post data so you can share with all school constituents to make data-driven decisions on what can be improved and changed. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers a lot of guidance on the many different considerations to review.

The Rutgers School of Health Professions and the new Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (MHTTC) in New Brunswick, N.J. work with school districts on mapping out resources and providing a strategic plan on how to create a school-based mental health program. The MHTTC Network hosted an 8-part training series using the National School Mental Health Best Practices: Implementation Guidance Modules for States, Districts, and Schools. This resource was developed by the MHTTC Network in partnership with the National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH) and aims to help states, districts and schools advance comprehensive school mental health and engage in a planning process for implementation.

10. Think positively

Literally, think positively. Having a mental health and wellness program in your building needs to come from a place of positivity. Bringing in ideas and activities that promote a sense of wellbeing within your school climate sends a message that everyone’s state of mental health is a priority.

Get this list as a free printable download!

What are other ways to put together a school mental health program? Share in the comments below. Plus, 10 ways to help students who struggle with anxiety.

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