Use of school mental health services increased shortly before pandemic, study finds

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A recent study found that use of mental health services in schools were on the rise among adolescents the year before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, was led by Adam Wilk, PhD, assistant professor in the department of health policy and management at Emory University in Atlanta. To get a sense of mental health trends prior to the pandemic, a team of researchers from Emory University and Harvard University analyzed a national database which included information on mental health service use in schools across the United States. The researchers studied mental health trends from 2009 to 2019, sampling more than 170,000 students aged 12 to 17 who participated in the survey.

The researchers found that students were more likely to receive mental health counseling at their schools in 2019 than during any other year in the study period. Researchers then compared trends between school mental health services and services from outside settings. While there was a significant increase in school services from 2018 to 2019, mental health services from non-school settings remained relatively steady during the same period.

According to Wilk, the rise in school mental health service accessibility and usage came shortly after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“Those improvements came at a time when there was heightened national discourse and focus on school mental health,” Wilk said in a statement. “As a next step, it will be important to understand how mental health programs and services implemented during the COVID-19 era and beyond have affected access to needed mental health care and mental health outcomes.”

In a commentary about his study, Wilk said there should be a national requirement that schools offer consistent, proven models of mental health services. He also proposed training educators on mental health literacy and implementing a social and emotional curriculum, as ways to improve student emotions, behavior, and academic performance.