Committee for Children Blog

Adding School Mental Health Professionals Alone Will Not Resolve the Youth Mental Health Crisis

Smiling students on a staircase. #AllKidsSafeAndWell.

Although we’re halfway through the school year with teachers and students knee-deep in academic recovery, the youth mental health crisis remains a barrier to children’s education. While this crisis may have been exacerbated over the past few years, it’s certainly not lessening as we climb out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government has taken positive steps to address the crisis by providing federal COVID-19 relief funding and passing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and many states have had a focus on advancing youth mental wellness. But as an expert in policy and advocacy for children’s well-being, I fear many of those efforts will continue to fall short in meeting the need of the youth mental health crisis.

Those efforts fall short because they often focus narrowly on “bodies in buildings,” such as adding more school counselors, social workers, and psychologists. Bodies in buildings are absolutely needed, and the effort deserves praise, but it cannot and will not work alone. There are two reasons why:

First, across the country, there are mental health professional shortages. Currently, there are not the bodies available to put into school buildings. And bolstering this workforce’s pipeline will take years to realize. Furthermore, a 2021 survey from The New York Times reported that general anxiety and depression along with relationship issues are the most common reasons people seek support. And while not a high-tier mental health intervention, building life skills is shown to reduce experiences of anxiety and depression and specifically addresses building and maintaining healthy relationships. When all students gain access to tools to manage and cope with their stress or navigate big emotions, there’s less demand for mental health professional appointments, or at least demand will be easier to meet. You might worry that reducing the mental health workforce burdens the educator workforce, but that’s not so. Learning these skills throughout the day also helps stave off educator burnout by increasing educators’ own sense of well-being as they work their way through the school year.

Second, “No mass disorder afflicting humankind has ever been eliminated or brought under control by attempts at treating the affected individual . . . Individual treatment has no effect on incidence.”[1] That is, we cannot solve a public health crisis affecting millions of children by addressing the needs of each child one-by-one or in small groups. This widespread problem needs a widespread solution. And it needs to be fundamentally preventative and proactive, rather than reactive in nature. Educators are coming to know this foundational layer of work by its academic name: Tier 1 primary prevention.

Prioritizing primary prevention in current efforts to support youth wellness is important because it’s what we often call “upstream support” that helps to mitigate challenges from developing into crises downstream. Teaching life skills in school and out-of-school time settings is an effective part of primary prevention because such skills help to build protective factors that can help all kids be safe, ready to learn, and able to thrive.

We need to be sure that current efforts include building essential life skills. They help reduce internalizing challenges (such as anxiety and depression), can be a part of comprehensive youth suicide prevention, and can further reduce externalizing challenges (such as aggression). Prevention science shows us that schools are a great place to reach kids to foster these vital life skills. Importantly, life skills that involve social skill-building and emotion management dovetail with trauma-informed practice: they help all kids learn to cope with adverse or traumatic events they might have experienced—whether they stem from the pandemic or recent violent events that have happened in schools and communities. 

How can educators address this issue? Here are three things to do to support primary prevention.

Prioritize School Prevention Efforts

Many schools have been working concertedly on prevention work for a long time—it’s an essential part of teaching and learning—but this work needs to be prioritized, be brought to the fore, and have quality guardrails. Building these skills starts at home and can be nurtured in the classroom, as they’re the everyday life skills that kids and adults need to work together, solve problems, or set goals.

Educators are well equipped to support this work in the classroom. Teaching life skills is nonmedical in nature (such as pedagogy and curriculum) and is implemented predominantly by nonmedical personnel (such as educators). Explicit research- or evidence-based instruction on life skills can take as little as 15–30 minutes a week and helps set kids up to be ready to learn and feel safe in the classroom.

Prevention is the foundation upon which those “bodies in buildings” can more efficiently and effectively respond to student need.

Partner with Families

As mentioned above, building essential life skills starts at home! Schools can honor the work at home by reinforcing those skills during the school day. Schools must be in communication and relationship with families as they engage in this work. The principal could talk about it during school family nights; the teachers could talk about it at parent-teacher conferences; the school could talk about it in the periodic school newsletter. Importantly, communication should be two-way. When talking about how schools support students’ learning, safety, and wellness in the classroom, families need an opportunity to share their hopes, dreams, fears, and worries about these efforts, and schools should work as they can to shape their efforts accordingly.   

Hearing from families simply builds on the fact that parents and caregivers overwhelmingly support students building social-emotional skills in the classroom. Across diverse backgrounds and political lines, families agree that teaching kids important social-emotional skills in the classroom is necessary for high-quality education. It gets the same kind of parental support as skills instruction—especially as it relates to supporting mental health and wellness.

Talk to Your Policymakers

And when larger, structural changes are needed, it’s important to connect with your policymakers so they know that this is an important issue. For example, Congress is currently in the fiscal year 2023 budget appropriations process. You can lend your voice to let your members of Congress know how important it is to continue to appropriate investments in effective prevention programs that promote youth mental health and wellness, learning, and safety within a full continuum of tiered supports.

Doing so is not only important for kids’ learning and well-being, it’s also a wise investment. For every $1 invested in prevention and early intervention programs, $2 to $10 is saved in other costs related to health care, legal, and education costs. Using a research- or evidence-based social-emotional learning curriculum to teach these skills typically costs $5 per student for a whole year and social-emotional skill building programs specifically have shown to return $11 for every $1 invested.

You can also check out other organizations that are advocating these issues and join in! After all, we’re much stronger when we use our voices together. When educators get involved to share our stories and expertise it ultimately helps the students we serve be safe, healthy, and ready to learn!

To learn more about our work to advocate primary prevention and life skills education, visit

[1] Albee, G. W. & Gullota, T. P. (Eds.). (1997). Issues in children’s and families’ lives: Primary prevention works. (Vol. 6). Sage Publications.