To Create Sustainable School Mental Health Systems
By Dana Asby, Education Coordinator, New England MHTTC
Decision-makers for education systems at the federal, state, and local level are focusing on reducing the gaps in support for youth mental health as next school year’s budgets are being decided. Administrators are grateful for increased funding being directed towards school mental health, however, the complex and often convoluted ways this funding is being delivered has created confusion and frustration. Many states and districts are concerned with their ability to create sustainable and comprehensive school mental health systems with funding that expires after three to five years. The National Center for School Mental Health has developed a toolkit to help education leaders navigate all the various ways they can fund these programs and systems, School Mental Health Quality Guide: Funding and Sustainability.
Funding School Mental Health Services Using Multiple Sources
Over the past few years, legislators have recognized the youth mental health crisis our nation is facing and directed more funding towards addressing this emotional pandemic. When states and districts receive easily digestible guidance for how best to use this funding, they are able to set up more effective and sustainable systems.
The first step is to understand where money for school mental health comes from. Schools can get private funding through foundation grants for programs to prevent, raise awareness, and increase literacy of mental health challenges. Some Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) direct funding towards school mental health. Other schools work with community coalitions of local businesses that form pools of funding schools can use for mental health programming.
In addition to the private funding schools can solicit, there are several different public streams of funding schools can receive to help pay for mental health services:
Reimbursement from Medicare and Children’s Health Insurance Program
Federal and state budget line items and earmarks
Block grants states automatically receive
Competitive grants at the state and federal level
Discretionary funds at the school and district level
Sustainable Practices for Effective Use of Mental Health Funding
Despite the fact that there have never been more ways to access funding for school mental health, many schools and districts still struggle to navigate the variety of methods to do so sustainably. Block grants and competitive public grants are often time-limited. This means that schools must make difficult decisions about whether to create a new position that they may or may not be able to maintain in three years or to purchase a costly social emotional learning program that may or may not last the test of time. The best way to ensure your school mental health funding is sustainable is to acquire multiple sources, work with diversely-funded collaborators, and continually look for new opportunities to bring in community partners, resources, and funding streams as they become available.
The National Center for School Mental Health (2020) recommends regular evaluation and updating of your school mental health financing plan, including plans to:
Align funding streams and structures across agencies
Ensure financing to support family/youth partnerships
Ensure financing for cultural/linguistic competence
Create an accountability system
Include provisions for improving workforce and provider network
Another important aspect of sustainable school mental health funding is advocacy. Forming relationships with state and federal decision-makers can lead to seats at the table when budgets are decided or new legislation is drafted. In Massachusetts, John Crocker, Director of School Mental Health & Behavioral Services for Methuen Public Schools, has had great success with this method. He formed a relationship with state Representative Campbell, who he knew also prioritized youth mental health, and showed her evidence that providing a state budget line item to support Methuen’s comprehensive school mental health efforts would benefit the state of Massachusetts. From those efforts, a long-standing amendment to the state budget has continued to pass so that Methuen can be an exemplar for what a district can do when school mental health funding is secure.
To implement some of the best practices described here, explore the resources below to see other examples of using diverse funding streams and collaborators to sustainably fund your school community’s mental health system.
National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH, 2020). School mental health quality guide: Funding and sustainability. NCSMH, University of Maryland School of Medicine.