School Leaders Need to Prioritize Kids’ Mental Health Now

If you feel like you’re seeing the impacts of mental illness more than ever in your school, you might be right.

School Leaders Need to Prioritize Kids' Mental Health Now

Twenty years ago, there was very little talk in schools about mental illness. School counselors have always been on hand to help, but kids today seem to be grappling with more serious issues. So, principals really need to know what to look for and how to respond to student mental illness.

Are mental health issues more common now?

Even a decade ago, many school leaders might never have encountered a child with a serious mental health disorder. You may have had a few students dealing with less severe mental health disorders, like anxiety. But today, you might find that there are students in every classroom who have a mental health issue. What’s going on? Have mental health issues become more common among students?

The answer is yes, although it’s complicated. One study, published in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders in 2014, found that pediatric diagnosis of bipolar disorder doubled between 1995 and 2014. In 2007, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that pediatric diagnosis of bipolar disorder “has increased by 40 times over the past decade.” Rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) increased 5 percent each year from 2003 to 2011.

Some of this can be explained by more attention being paid to kids’ mental health. Educators, for example, are more aware of the signs and look for kids who may need help. However, research indicates that improved diagnostics can only explain part of the increase. Essentially, medical professionals aren’t entirely sure why more kids are experiencing mental health issues.


How many kids have mental illness?


Exactly how many kids in your school are dealing with mental health disorders depends in large part on their age. In general, mental health issues become more common as kids get older. Issues can emerge around puberty and again during the late teenage years.

It’s hard to get data on mental illness among elementary and middle school students. In kids ages two through eight, medical professionals and researchers look for mental, behavioral, or developmental disorders (MBDD). One in seven kids in that age group has a disorder, but only a fraction of those disorders are related to mental health. By the teen years, one in five students will experience a mental illness.

With such a large percentage of students dealing with mental health issues, it’s imperative that principals understand the basics. It’s important that you know how to support students and help them access the treatment they need.


The makeup of your school population might mean you see more mental health issues.

Mental illness can affect anyone. However, certain populations are more at risk. Children living in poverty are more likely to have a mental health condition, and half of students involved with social services have a mental health condition, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

Access to treatment can affect how well a child with a mental illness is able to cope in school. Children who are receiving treatment are more likely to succeed in school, while those with untreated mental health conditions might encounter more trouble. Sadly, there are racial and ethnic imbalances in access to treatment, with Latino children being the least likely to get treatment, the NCCP found.


Supporting students with mental health issues should be a priority.

You can support students and teachers who are likely encountering mental illness in their classrooms. Mental health conditions begin affecting school performance as early as prekindergarten, where kids without access to mental health professionals are 89 percent more likely to be expelled. This continues through high school, where kids with mental illness are more likely to be disciplined and less likely to graduate.

Having early access to treatment vastly improves outcomes for kids with mental illness. A school system is often instrumental in identifying kids who might be struggling. By being educated about mental health risk factors and conditions, you can help your school community increase access to treatment. You can also identify what your students need and advocate for policies that help keep kids with mental illness in the classroom.

By creating a school culture where people are comfortable discussing mental health, you are equipping your teachers to deal with situations that might otherwise be overwhelming. Take a proactive rather than reactive stance to students with mental health conditions to improve your school.

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