Young people spend a lot of their time in school – a place to learn, grow and connect with others.
But when a child or teen is facing mental health difficulties, it’s not always the best place to find support. Despite schools’ best efforts, a lack of proven interventions in place can mean kids don’t get the kind of help they need most.
Studies have found that around 1 in every 5 school-aged children is impacted by mental illness, but only 20 percent of these students receive treatment. While many students identified with mental illness are set up with an individualized education program, or IEP, even these kids don’t necessarily receive research-based interventions – and many more fall through the cracks, says Elizabeth Koschmann, Ph.D., an assistant research scientist in the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.
“We see school counselors and social workers who are extremely caring, wonderful, hardworking people, but they just don’t have the time or resources to be able to provide very efficient and very effective mental health services for students,” she says.
But many people are working to change that. Koschmann is the program director for TRAILS to Wellness, a statewide program in which trained coaches work with school professionals to bring evidence-based mental health practices to schools.
First launched by the University of Michigan in 2016 as a pilot program at schools in Ann Arbor, it focuses on the use of approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, plus provides follow-up coaching to ensure the methods are properly implemented.
“TRAILS is designed to bridge that gap between evidence-based research into effective mental health practices and those individuals who can then deliver that care,” Koschmann explains.
TRAILS, which is affiliated with the U-M Depression Center, is supported by funds from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation, Michigan Health Endowment Fund, Prosper Road Foundation, the Mackey Family and the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. It also receives support from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, Michigan Health Endowment Fund, Metro Health Hospital Foundation, The Jewish Fund, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, DMC Foundation and the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation.
Thanks to this support, the program is now being implemented all around Michigan, including at all Detroit Public Schools Community District buildings. Dr. Elliott Attisha, senior health officer for DPSCD, says unaddressed behavioral health problems can “significantly hinder a student’s learning environment, leading to struggles with academic performance, friendships, attendance and also placing students at increased risk for dropout.”
“Sadly, due to both stigma and barriers around access, many children fail to receive the necessary resources,” he explains. “Detroit Public Schools Community District understands the importance of addressing behavioral health and has committed to making that inclusive of our whole-child commitment. This will require a coordinated and comprehensive effort with a shared understanding of current needs. We are grateful to our existing health partners for helping us to advance this work and continue to identify additional resources to support our students and families.”
Studies show students who receive CBT from school professionals have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, Koschmann points out.
“We know that kids are far more likely to seek out mental health support in their own schools, where they have a relationship with their counselors, psychologists, teachers, social workers and nurses,” she says, so having adequate services in schools is critical. And CBT, Koschmann says, is “very effective.”
“If it were up to me, every kid in every school starting as soon as kindergarten would be learning CBT skills – because they are just life skills and they are good for all of us, whether you have a mental illness or not,” she adds.
For more information on TRAILS, visit trailstowellness.org.