Most Parents Not Sure Schools Can Care For Students' Mental Health

A new national poll suggests parents are not confident that schools can appropriately care for students’ mental health problems or medical issues.

The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan discovered that only 38 percent of parents are very confident in schools’ ability to assist a student suspected of having a mental health problem.

Most parents (77 percent) are sure schools would be able to provide first aid for minor issues, such as bleeding from a cut. But parents are less confident about a school’s ability to respond to more complex health situations, such as an asthma attack or mental health issues.

“Parents feel schools can handle basic first aid, but are less sure about urgent health situations such as an asthma attack, epileptic seizure, or serious allergic reaction,” said Sarah Clark, M.P.H, co-director of the poll.

“And they have the most uncertainty around whether schools can identify and assist a student with a mental health problem.”

“One of the challenges of addressing mental health is that there are so many facets,” Clark said. “At the elementary level, this might include prolonged sadness, anger management problems, or undiagnosed ADHD. For older students, it may be anxiety about college entrance tests, a problem with drug use, or suicidal thoughts.”

Parents at the middle/high school level noted that school counselors would be most likely to assist with mental health issues. However, varying levels of training, competing demands, and large student caseloads may make it especially difficult for counselors to identify students who are struggling.

“Parents may want to learn more about how their child’s school works to identify and support students struggling with mental health issues, and advocate for increased resources if needed,” she said.

For basic first aid and urgent health conditions, parents name the school nurse as the staff with primary responsibility. Roughly three in five parents believe a school nurse is onsite at their child’s school five days a week (61 percent of elementary parents, 57 percent of junior/senior high parents).

Parents who believe a school nurse is onsite five days a week report higher levels of confidence in the school’s ability to handle health and safety situations.

However, recent data from the National Association of School Nurses suggests that parents may be overestimating the amount of time a nurse spends at their child’s school. Fewer than half of U.S. schools have full-time nurses, with substantial variation by region, according to the data.

Budget constraints have forced many school districts to cut nurse staffing at school sites. Some districts are attempting to use telemedicine to fill the void in on-site care, promising improved access, yet parents are often not pleased with this solution.

A distinct trend is the reduction in constant availability of a school nurse — a situation that may be particularly chancy for students with health conditions that may require an immediate response at school such as administering a medication or knowing when to call an ambulance.

“Parents of children with special health needs should work directly with school personnel to understand the onsite availability of school nurses, and to ensure non-medical staff are prepared to handle urgent health-related situations that may arise during the school day,” she said.

Source: University of Michigan