In a time where people across the globe more virtually connected than ever before, there seems to be an increased sense of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness for many. At the same time, the rates of people struggling with mental health disorders is high. Millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions every year.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately, 1 in 5 adults or 43.8 million individuals, in the US are impacted by a mental illness in a given year. Some of the most impacted individuals are kids.  About 20% of children and adolescents have mental health issues and about half of all mental disorders begin before the age of 14.  The suicide rate of young people is of significant concern, over 800 000 people die due to suicide every year and suicide is the third leading cause of death in 10-24-year-olds.  Most of these children with mental health needs, nearly 80%, will not receive the mental health care they need. This lack of treatment and support can lead to further negative outcomes such as incarceration.

With these startling statistics, it is crucial that we not only develop ways to support individuals with mental health concerns but that we focus on strategies to support them in leading happy, healthy, and meaningful adult lives, ultimately attaining “Mental WELLth.”

But what is mental health and mental illness, and how do we focus on being more mental “WELLthy”?

Mental Health and Mental Illness

According to the the World Health Organization (2004), Mental illness may be defined as a wide range of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems that are related to distress or impaired functioning, that may not necessarily be considered a psychiatric disorder. Mental health includes the emotional, psychological, and social well-being of a person. It impacts how individuals think, feel, and act, as well as their capacity to adapt to change and cope with adversity. Mental health is crucial to individual well-being, interpersonal relationships with friends and family, as well as the ability to contribute positively to the community. It is easy to overlook the importance of mental health until problems arise.

What kinds of problems might we see in the schools? Many school-based studies have further defined mental health and how it relates to academic outcomes for kids. Specifically, data support a two-dimensional model of mental health, indicating the presence of distress and absence of well-being are independently related to impairments in students’ school performance. In addition, positive and negative indicators of mental health can be used in predicting attendance and academic achievement outcomes over time. Given these findings, there is not only a need to focus on symptoms of distress but more importantly we must understand individual and community assets and how they can help kids flourish.

Striving toward Mental WELLth

Mental WELLth is the idea that we not only focus on preventing mental illness, but instead we focus on helping individuals thrive. As mental health is much more than just the absence of mental illness, it is helpful to understand how an individual’s well-being is influenced within in the context of the individual’s environment and their own development,

A Systems View of Mental Health

Mental health is impacted by the complex interaction that occurs within and between many different environments (i.e. individual, family, school, and community). This concept comes out of the work of Bronfenbrenner (1979) and his ecologic systems theory.  In this model, Bronfenbrenner highlighted the importance of understanding a child in the context of multiple environments, also known as ecological systems.  The child is simultaneously enmeshed in different ecosystems at the same time, each of these systems interact with and influence each other in every aspect of the child’s life. The model organizes contexts of development into five levels of influence (microsystem, mesosysten, exosystem, macrosystem,  and chronosystem). The microsystem setting is the immediate environment in which the child lives. For example, the student’s family, peers, teachers, and neighbors are all people that may have direct social interactions with the individual, in which influences go back and forth. How these groups or individuals interact with the child will affect how the child develops. Similarly, how the child reacts and interacts with the people in his/her microsystem will also influence how these individuals treat the child. This interaction can also be impacted by the child’s unique temperament, which is influenced by genetic and biological factors. More supportive and loving interactions within this system will foster the child’s improved well-being.

How do schools play a role in mental health?

As we described above, many children are struggling with mental health issues that impact their social relationships and academic functioning.  In the United States, approximately one in five school-aged children experiences a mental health issue and approximately 70% of children have experienced some type of physical or emotional trauma. Many students with mental illness are frequently absent from school, experience reductions in academic achievement, and are more likely to drop out from school. In addition, according to a United States Government Accountability Office report (2008), youth with mental illness are less likely to advance to go on to post-secondary education opportunities, such as college.

It is clear that schools must play an integral role in prevention and intervention efforts to improve student well-being and reduce the negative impact of mental illness.  The school environment not only plays a significant part in youth mental health but can also provide access to mental health services that children may not typically be able to receive in the community. School professionals should be well-versed in identifying early warning signs of a developing mental health condition and in linking students with effective services and supports.

With the growing interest in psychological well-being and helping students thrive, it is recognized that the goal of school safety and intervention practices is not just to reduce negative mental health outcomes but to enhance the psychological well-being of all students, with the aim towards flourishing and optimal development. The focus on enhancing all students’ well-being, and not the delivery of traditional deficit-focused mental health services, can be seen in multi-tiered systems of support that have developed over recent years. These systems of support include a range of layered interventions that promote mental and behavioral wellness among all students. At the core of an effective mental health prevention and intervention process is collaboration.


Although collaboration varies depending on the setting, there is a consensus that collaboration leads to more effective communication, stronger and more sustainable relationships, reduced stress among team members, and the attainment of goals that would otherwise not be possible. In the school setting, students experience better academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes when schools, outside agencies, and families work together. Thus, finding a way to create successful collaborative practices within the educational context is a necessary goal for all team members.

School professionals must collaborate with students, families, and community providers in order to best meet the student’s needs. Students and families can help establish and clarify goals, identify shared values, and provide input on the design of culturally sensitive and feasible interventions.  When mental health problems become severe or require time and resources beyond the scope of the practitioners in the school setting, community providers with advanced expertise should be engaged in the collaborative team process to provide necessary or specialized support services.  So with all of this in mind- where do we start our collaboration efforts?

Here are a few ideas to get us started:

  • Connect–foster healthy relationships with friends, family, school professionals, colleagues and other community members.
  • Collaborate— if you are struggling with mental health issues, or are supporting someone with mental health needs….bring a team together, share common goals, and develop a plan together!
  • Advocate— for more funds to hire additional school counselors and school psychologists- the more trained professionals available to kids in the schools the more prevention and intervention work we can do.
  • Encourage— mental health training for teachers—teachers are connected with their students on a daily basis, and if trained, can identify warning signs early.
  • Share –resources. Below is a short list to get you started


National Alliance on Mental Illness

Youth mental health: Risk and protective factors.

Youth mental health: Warning signs.

Talk about mental health: For educators.

Resources for School Professionals

Project Covitality


Additional Resources for intervention and assessment