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Mental health clinics move to schools

Schools feeling an increasing need to provide student mental health services are partnering with nonprofits to open on-campus clinics as budget cuts have left many districts with fewer psychologists, counselors, and social workers.

In the past 10 years, the number of school-based health centers with mental health professionals on staff has more than doubled, according to the American Psychological Association. While some psychologists, including those from the School Mental Health Project at UCLA, say children are not facing any more stressors now than in the past, society is more aware of the need to address childhood mental illness than ever before.

There are more than 1,800 school-based health centers nationwide, says the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care, most of which are in urban areas. In December, the Affordable Care Act provided $80 million in federal funding for nearly 200 of these programs—the first time federal funds were directed solely to school-based health centers.

In Westchester County, N.Y., an area with great wealth and pockets of poverty just north of New York City, the number of school-based clinics among the 43 school districts has increased to 58. “Over the past decade, our schools have been steadily cutting back on resources like psychologists,” says Grant Mitchell, commissioner of the Westchester Department of Mental Health. “As those cuts were being made in districts, we found an increased demand for children’s mental health services in the community.”

The department worked with local nonprofit mental health organizations to open satellite clinics on the school campuses where support staff had been cut the most. There is no cost to the schools and clinics charge students per service. If students do not have insurance, services are offered on a sliding scale, or for free, Mitchell says.

In Yonkers (N.Y.) Public Schools, the counseling staff in 2009-2010 had 51 guidance counselors, 34 psychologists, and 17 social workers. This past school year, it dropped to 15 guidance counselors, 17 psychologists, and eight social workers, according to the state education department. The Westchester County district, which has 40 schools and 26,000 students, now has 12 clinics.

Students in Yonkers schools tend to come from areas of high poverty and immigration, and have a greater need for all health services, says district spokesperson Maura Lamoreaux. The school-based clinics have given children whose parents may not have insurance access to health care, and alleviate barriers such as transportation to private health services.

More communities are also contracting with mental health professionals to provide for students with more intensive needs, says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Child and Adolescent Action Center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In about 500 Minnesota schools that implemented such programs through a grant, school principals and social workers said that, within two years, attendance and academic achievement went up while disruptive classroom behavior dropped.

“Schools have a tremendous amount on their plates, and it’s important to build connections with community mental health organizations so that schools are not doing this alone,” Gruttadaro says. “When we identify students that have emerging mental illness and link them with services, the entire school benefits.”

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