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Why Schools Need to Normalize and Prioritize Students’ Mental Health

It’s crucial that school leaders boost investments in mental health resources and reduce the related stigma for students, particularly those from low-income families.

June 9, 2021
Marlena Sauceda

Marlena Sauceda

Specialist, Development

Marlena Sauceda

Marlena Sauceda

Specialist, Development

We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. That has become increasingly clear more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting nearly every aspect of daily life.

This reality makes sense, given the similar increase in mental illness that was seen during the 1918 flu pandemic

The current pandemic has only exacerbated the lack of access to mental health care for low-income communities. There have been between 600,000 and 900,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S., which have disproportionately impacted low-income communities—the same communities that are also disproportionately feeling the impacts of the loss of jobs, income, and housing and food security.

Keep in mind that mental illnesses are often symptoms of poverty. In fact, multiple studies have shown that low-income adults can be up to twice as likely to have mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression compared to higher-income individuals. And yet, less than 15% of children in low-income communities in need of mental health care actually receive services.

Whether it’s due to lack of access to healthcare, the fact that mental health treatment is not covered by most healthcare plans, stigmas around mental illness, or all of the above, the communities that most need this care are simply not getting it.

This is aligned with my personal experience. I grew up in a low-income household, raised by a single mother, and I witnessed my mom coping with mental illness herself—sometimes with access to care, sometimes without access. I became more acutely aware of her experience in my teens, and I eventually understood why it was sometimes difficult for her to get up in the mornings to get my sister and me to school on time.

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Even with this awareness and understanding, I was still affected by the many negative stigmas around what it means to have a mental illness. I was 25 years old when I first acknowledged my own mental health. I realized that I have had anxiety for most of my life—something the volatility and uncertainty of growing up in a low-income household contributed to. It wasn’t until nearly a year after that realization that I finally decided to seek care and find a therapist. Now, after nearly two years of meeting bi-weekly with a therapist and learning healthy ways to cope with and manage my anxiety, I can’t help but wonder how different my life might be if I had access to mental health care at a younger age.

It shouldn’t take 25 years for someone who grew up in a low-income community to acknowledge that they have anxiety.

What could my schools and teachers have done differently, and what could they be doing differently now as a whole new generation of low-income students are experiencing mental illness related to, or made worse by, the COVID-19 pandemic?

Recently, school leaders have acknowledged and embraced the importance of social-emotional learning. The time has come for schools and educators to move beyond that awareness and engage in actions and practices that intentionally remove stigmas around mental health and increase access to mental healthcare.

“It shouldn’t take 25 years for someone who grew up in a low-income community to acknowledge that they have anxiety.”

Marlena Sauceda

State education agencies, school districts, and school leaders must prioritize mental health when making decisions about how to use their resources. Recently, the Arizona superintendent of public instruction announced that the department was dedicating $21 million in COVID-19 relief funding to hire school counselors and social workers. This is a commendable use of those funds, but it is also an impermanent solution. This funding will provide 140 counselors or social workers to select schools for just two years, and it does not include a single school psychologist.

The best solution would be to allocate sufficient funding for every school, in every community, to have both school counselors and school psychologists on campus. This may seem unrealistic, but all it requires is a reallocation of existing funds, which is exactly what the city council in Alexandria, Virginia, recently voted to do when it reallocated funding for school resource officers (SROs) and reserved it instead for providing mental health resources to children in the city’s public schools.


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There are 6 million children in schools with SROs but no school psychologists, according to a 2019 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Last summer, in the midst of protests against police brutality, students across the country began advocating for the removal of SROs from their schools. District and school leaders should be throwing their support behind these student-led efforts and advocating to use that money instead to hire counselors and psychologists.

Of course, increasing access alone is not enough. More must also be done to remove stigmas around mental health as well. 

With existing resources, schools and teachers can begin to normalize mental health through daily classroom practices. Teachers can share resources, assign daily journaling or implement a check-in process to give students time to think about and acknowledge their emotions—anything to make mental health more present in the classroom contributes to removing stigmas around having a mental illness. As a volunteer facilitator for Arizona-based nonprofit Aliento’s Arts & Healing workshops, it has become clear to me that young people are not practicing mindfulness—pausing to think about how they’re feeling or what emotions they have recently felt—at school or at home.

Teachers must make space for students to express their feelings, even if just on paper, and schools should proactively share available resources, such as local free counseling services or lists of bilingual counseling services, with students and their parents. In order to truly change how low-income communities think about mental health, parents must be brought into the conversation and encouraged to access care when necessary, and when it is available.

In a world with school psychologists in place in every school, it could be a standard and normal practice for all students to meet with a psychologist at least once a year, just as it is a standard and normal practice for people to visit their primary care physician at least once a year. Schools could hold wellness days, similar to field days, where students engage in different types of stress-reduction activities, or they could invite local organizations that provide mental health and wellness workshops to provide programming on campus.

The possibilities for schools and educators to transform how future generations think about mental health and mental healthcare are endless. What’s important is that we begin to have the conversation, alongside families and communities, and that decisions about how schools spend time and money begin to reflect that mental health is a priority.

Marlena Sauceda

Marlena Sauceda is a person who experienced upward socioeconomic mobility after being granted access to an excellent education in the public schools she attended. She is the daughter of teen parents, granddaughter of immigrants and migrant farm workers, and a first-generation college graduate. Within her community in the land currently known as Phoenix, Arizona, Marlena advocates for migrant and low-income communities. As a staff member at Teach For America, she supports fundraising operations and leads the Low-Income Background Staff Resource Group.

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

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