Implementing Mental Health Prevention in Schools

By Evelyn Frankford, Principal of Frankford Consulting, Senior Associate at the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools

Even though knowledge about prevention has burgeoned, it is not easy to find pipelines for getting this knowledge and attendant positive child development practices into the institutions that serve children. Yet, this gap also offers an opportunity: As school-community partnerships, more ad hoc and flexible than large statutory systems, become more widespread, they are positioned to bring such knowledge to bear in the social, physical, end economic environments affecting children.

A concern with such environments is a hallmark of a public health approach to school-community partnerships to support student well-being. This focus on prevention and environments is frequently the context for organizing student supports and services according to a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), where Tier 1 is the location of universal (for everyone) supports to promote positive social and emotional development and school climate. Tier 1 is one of the three tiers where partners can infuse prevention knowledge into students’ environments and have a great impact on youth.

A Tier 1 case in point is showcased by how the Mental Health Association in New York State (MHANYS) is guiding implementation of a State law to add mental health education to school health curricula. As Amy Molloy, MHANYS’ Education Director, says, “School conversations usually start with the top two tiers. We are working with them on the Tier 1 universal level to create more supportive environments.” MHANYS’ guidelines recommend that schools and partners take a public health approach “geared toward providing students with life-long skills and resources that transcend a young person’s present role as a student.” The goal of such curricula is to maximize wellness and promote the idea that mental wellness is an integral part of health. Recommendations for curricula note the importance of recognizing risk factors, protective factors, and resiliency on wellness and mental health.

Introducing such creative prevention Tier 1 strategies can be a hallmark of partnerships between schools and community organizations.  Doing so is likely to require a pivot from simply adding a program here or there toward thinking through a more integrated strategy for modifying environments to accomplish prevention goals. Working with schools and partners to incorporate a universal curriculum to promote mental health is one strategy that can have ripple effects.

Hats off to you out there who are building school-community partnerships and working to build Tier 1 for all students. The task might feel daunting (and it is) but the rewards will be oh-so-worthwhile for your students.