Research shows school-based mental-health care improves students’ grades, attendance and reduces discipline. So why isn’t the Legislature making mental-health care part of its response to the McCleary ruling?
Tomas Garcia has broad shoulders, three earrings and fashionably ripped jeans. His appearance gives no indication there’s anything but good things ahead for the Roosevelt High School senior.
But by his own admission, he’s lucky to be at school. As a freshman, he sought out mental-health counseling at school when his parents separated, and again as a junior, when his rebellion was overtaking his studies.
“If I hadn’t come in here, I don’t think I’d be on track to graduate, to be honest,” said Garcia.
Garcia got help through an unusual health center located at Roosevelt. While some schools might have a nurse, Roosevelt’s clinic has four full-time staff positions. A pharmacy, primary medical care and mental-health therapy are just across the hall from the ceramics room. Services are free if kids need them.
This approach is extraordinarily rare. When it comes to student’s emotional health, Washington state’s school-funding model is parsimonious and badly behind the times.
Research by University of Washington professors on Seattle’s school-based medical centers found that students’ GPAs jumped when they got mental-health care. Absences for kids who repeatedly skipped class fell by 50 percent. Students of color are 21 times more likely to see a mental-health therapist in school than in a community clinic.
Research by Washington State University on the Spokane schools found a tight correlation between disciplinary incidents and child trauma, and a huge drop when schools recognized and addressed kids’ so-called Adverse Childhood Experiences.
For a school system looking for better outcomes, the return-on-investment for mental-health care is absurdly good.
Yet in Washington, there are just 975 full-time psychologists for 1.1 million kids — one per 1,200 kids, according to state data tracking spending by districts. Social workers, who often work as mental-health therapists, have average caseloads of about 9,000 students. There is one nurse per 2,250.
Now is the moment to change that. The Legislature is under the Supreme Court’s deadline pressure to fully fund schools. A fully funded school should unquestionably help students with the emotional baggage that gets in the way of learning. The Washington State PTA lists better services for socio-emotional learning as its top legislative priority.
Yet lawmakers proposals so far don’t show urgency about adding those services. The House Democrats plan, which uses a “model-school” formula, adds guidance counselors and parent-engagement workers, but does not add medical or mental-health staff. The Republican plan gives schools more flexibility to move around money, but it also doesn’t reflect the research.
In fact, a bill to add just nine regional staffers to coordinate school mental-health programs died quietly.
Seattle is the only district in the state to do this right. Because of the city’s Families and Education levy, there is a full health clinic at every high school, at five middle schools and at eight elementary schools, at a cost of about $500,000 per center.
The rest of the state has just 10 school-based health centers, according to the Washington School-based Health Alliance.
The lack of attention to students’ mental health is yet another symptom of Washington’s crisis-driven mental-health system. Jurgen Unutzer, chair of the UW psychiatry department, broke down the numbers: About 1 million Washingtonians have a behavioral-health problem on any given day. We spend about 90 percent of our budget on the 1,800 people in psychiatric hospitals, while about 550,000 people get nothing.
“What if this were cancer? What if we said only one out of five will see a doctor? You’d say that’s wrong. But that’s where we are with mental health,” said Unutzer.
His prescription: push lots more money and services to early intervention — starting with health centers like the one at Roosevelt High.
Nancy Schub has been there for 16 years as mental-health therapist, one 50-minute session at a time. Because the clinic is embedded in the school, students can easily refer themselves, or their friends.
Auky Van Beek, a physician assistant, estimates she spends a third of her time on mental health. “It feels like we’re connecting with the right kids at the right time,” said Van Beek. “It feels like we’ve prevented suicides, prevented pregnancies, prevented dropouts and increased graduation rates.”
Garcia, 18, is thinking about life after graduation — maybe police work, maybe the military. He says he probably would have dropped out but for the therapy from Schub when he was “going through rough times.” There was no stigma in asking for help, he said.
The Supreme Court’s McCleary pressure has given the state a clean slate on education funding. If we really want better student outcomes, and healthier kids, it would be crazy to not open the door to mental-health services.