Many aspects of a child’s day, including mental wellness, impact the ability to learn. Unfortunately, K-12 students continue to report elevated levels of stress, depression and anxiety. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these diagnoses and brought more attention to student wellness. As a result, there was a steady stream of legislation addressing student mental health and wellness in 2022.
Supporting a Positive School Climate
Positive school climates create space for learning, academic achievement and student growth by fostering relationship-centered learning environments. To create positive school climates, many states have enacted multifaceted legislation that often includes aspects of student mental health. For example, to measure the supportiveness of K-12 learning environments, Colorado enacted legislation in 2022 requiring its education department to compile data on chronic absenteeism rates, in-school and out-of-school suspensions, and the number of school-related arrests. The department also must create easily accessible school district profiles related to school climate, including surveys.
Mental Health and Wellness Curricula
One of the trends NCSL has tracked involves states connecting physical and mental health through curricula. Some states require curricula to include mental health and relationship topics; others require the education department to incorporate mental health into state standards. A 2017 survey of Delaware high school students revealed the number of students who said they felt sad or hopeless, had seriously considered suicide, had planned how they would attempt suicide, or had attempted suicide. As a result, Delaware now requires its education department to establish and implement statewide student mental health education programs for K-12 students. The act also requires the department to report annually on implementation to the governor and General Assembly.
Suicide Prevention Programs and Services
As suicide continues to be a leading cause of death for youth, many states have turned to policies aimed at promoting awareness, providing intervention plans and support services, requiring professional development, and more. Many states have required student identification cards in secondary schools to include the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee enacted such legislation in 2022. States also allocated funding to suicide prevention and awareness efforts. Michigan provided funds to local education agencies to encourage suicide prevention education and counseling.
Absenteeism Related to Mental Health
A newer trend has been the addition of mental health to the list of valid reasons to be absent from school. Some states require a mental health professional to provide the excuse for a student, while others require guardians to explicitly state that a student is using this excuse. Kentucky requires school district attendance policies to allow absences for mental health reasons. While the law does not add extra days for absence, it makes it explicit that mental health is health.
Work Groups, Pilot Programs and Commissions
Policymakers may convene working groups to create statewide policy around suicide, mental health and discipline, or to study student behavior. An adopted resolution in Louisiana created the Student Behavior, Mental Health and Discipline Task Force to study improving certain policies and data relative to student behavior and discipline. The group’s scope of study includes trauma-informed services for K-12 students, the feasibility of certain school psychologist and social worker ratios, and various aspects of student discipline, including corporal punishment and zero tolerance practices.
To help create safe learning environments where all students can learn, policymakers are investing in adult capacity. One strategy has been to incorporate professional development into inclusive practices for student mental health. Pennsylvania enacted legislation to provide grants to local education agencies for suicide awareness and prevention curricula; training to help school employees and students identify signs of anxiety, depression, suicide or self-harm; and best practices for seeking mental health assistance.
Staffing Ratios for Mental Health Professionals
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends providing one psychologist for every 500 students, and the American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students. As states consider policies around staffing ratios, many are requiring a predetermined proportion of providers to students, with the highest concentration usually at the high school level. Most of the legislation also requires reports outlining ratios, retention practices and more. Maryland enacted legislation in 2019 requiring local school systems to report their ratio of students to school psychologists, as well as strategies to reach or maintain their ratios. This type of legislation has continued in the states in recent years. In 2022, Delaware expanded legislation from 2021 to include $8 million for statewide mental health services. HB 300 calls for more mental health care professionals in middle schools to decrease the ratio of students to school therapists, psychologists and counselors. HB 301 calls for statewide implementation of educational mental health programs in each grade level, kindergarten through high school.
Autumn Rivera is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.