The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. schools should step up amid a perfect storm of mental health challenges

The number of students dealing with anxiety and stress has increased during the pandemic. (iStock)

Kisha Clark is a parent advocate with Parents Amplifying Voices in Education.

What does the world look like to a child struggling with mental health challenges?

Confusing. Scary. Lonely. Mean. Cold.

The pandemic has compounded mental health challenges in young children. A recent report from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy noted massive increases in self-harm hospitalizations as well as incidents of depression and anxiety because of the pandemic, telling The Post children are now enduring a “perfect storm of a stressor.”

Fortunately, D.C. has made investing in school-based mental health a major priority. Over the past several years, D.C. has worked to expand behavioral health services to all public schools. We now spend upward of $30 million annually on that school-based mental health system. Promisingly, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) recently announced big increases in education spending in next year’s budget and a multi-year investment in school-based mental health services. These are welcome and needed resources.

However, given the growing mental health needs of students, teachers and staff because of the pandemic, and the already substantial mental health needs of our students, we will need to do more to provide the kinds of services all students should be able to access at every public school.

The experience of my daughter has opened my eyes to the complex and difficult circumstances children with mental health needs face in our public schools — even when they are staffed with qualified and caring mental health professionals.

Attending one of the largest middle schools in upper Northwest D.C., she was one of more than 1,400 students. Even with a full-time psychologist and a handful of counselors and social workers, she couldn’t get the daily supports her depression, anxiety and ADHD diagnoses required. The result, as with the experience of so many children, was that her behavior challenges were too often met with punitive responses. Instead of additional counseling, she got in trouble. Instead of having a chance to calm down and regroup in school, she was sent home and missed class.

We made the decision to move her to her neighborhood school on Capitol Hill. There, thanks to a social worker and vice principal who had the bandwidth to focus on creative solutions for students with behavioral health needs, students had access to a “calm-down” space. It was a comfortable room, scented with lavender and chamomile, where my daughter and other students could relax and reset so they could return to class and continue to learn. Working with the vice principal and her teachers, we were able to develop a process to have her academic and mental health needs met, the opposite of what took place at her previous school.

She’s now enrolled at our neighborhood high school. The counselors, social workers and coordinators there have developed plans that help her complete her schoolwork. Initially, we faced some of the old challenges; however, the school leadership is open to creating a climate and space that my daughter and her peers need — one they can use to stay engaged in school while living with mental health challenges.

My daughter’s experience illustrates a broader point: Even with a “comprehensive” school-based mental health system, the actual support students can access can vary greatly. This is why the mayor and D.C. Council’s 2023 budget should deepen D.C.'s commitment to the behavioral health support system in our public schools through two key steps.

First, we should conduct a comprehensive assessment of every school community’s needs. Because of the diversity of our schools and neighborhoods, assessments of this kind are essential to understand and address the challenges faced by public school students, staff and educators in D.C. Such assessments would also help us understand broader trends and complex contributors to the mental health issues young people face, giving us new tools and insights to address them.

Second, because a system is only as good as the accountability baked into it, we need to establish strong monitoring features in our school-based mental health system. That means ensuring that the services students need are delivered to families with clarity. It also means that when the system does not work correctly, failures are acknowledged and addressed quickly and leaders are transparent about efforts to improve policies and programs.

These solutions and others can take us to the next step in building the school-based mental health system that gives all our public school students a chance to thrive, through the pandemic and beyond. And as we do that, the world will look a little less confusing, a lot kinder, more supportive and a bit warmer for students across D.C.