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Could mental health services in schools drive academic achievement?

Could mental health services in schools drive academic achievement?

Picture of Ross Terrell
Could mental health services in schools drive academic achievement?

Georgia’s APEX program is entering its fifth year. It’s the state’s attempt to increase mental health services in both private and public schools. 

In fact, this year Georgia’s governor added another $8.4 million to the program. This came just months before he requested state departments to cut their budgets by 4% to 6%. The investment is one measure of the state’s commitment to mental health. 

That’s often one of the first factors looked at when it comes to school shootings and other violent activities. In fact, the state’s department of education claims that the better a school’s climate, the better the learning environment for students and the better that school performs in preparing kids for advanced education.

But is does that claim hold up? Well, it’s time to examine the data. And there are quite a bit of numbers to look at to tell the story. 

For starters, about 55% of the state’s counties participate in the APEX program. That’s according to numbers from June 2018. The first comparison is between schools participating and those not. 

Here’s a way to put this into perspective. According to data from the state, about 27 students per school received first-time mental health services. That equates to a classroom of kids, just about. So for each school in the program, a full class of students are getting checked out and potentially treated for something they may have never sought help for before. 

How do students feel and where are those schools located? Are schools joining the program in more urban or rural settings? The challenges are different when it comes to inner city schools versus ones in other locations.

Next, the state applied ratings to schools between one and five stars based on their mental health climate rating. That comes from an annual survey the state conducts. That allows us to see how the ratings vary in the districts and counties that are a part of the program. 

Once we have that, we can compare it to how schools have performed when it comes to education standards. That will give us an idea of whether schools offering mental health services are truly setting up students to be better prepared. 

In fact, it’s a form of accountability. Has the program actually been worth the money? Where have the millions of dollars gone and what are the long-term benefits of identifying potential mental health problems in school versus later in life?

But the larger importance of the story is whether this is a model for other states and schools in the country. Is it sustainable? If this is working and 100% of schools in the state buy in, what are the financial implications?

Is that even the goal from the state or is the plan to give schools a jump on the issue and leave it up to individual school systems to fund it themselves? 

If it is successful, how can this model be replicated across the country? If students can be reached in middle and high school and learn how to address their mental health and even learn the signs of certain issues, what does that mean for their future? 

Once all the data is sifted through and the numbers are crunched for my 2019 Data Fellowship, we will learn what schools have done the best and what approaches are the most successful. If that can be replicated throughout a school district, county, or even the state, perhaps we’ll be able to call this program a success.

This program only has four years of data but that data can be a key indicator for students’ mental health years from now. 

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