Kidsburgh Mental Health Guide: How can your school help you and your kids?

In Kidsburgh’s recent survey of Pittsburgh-area educators, we asked: What do you wish parents knew about mental health?

This simple response said it all: I want them to know that they aren’t alone in this. 

Schools have a wide range of resources available to help students and their families with mental health. Whether your child is struggling with emotions or with cognitive differences like ADHD or Asperger’s, you can ask your school for help. 

Resources, unfortunately, are not the same at every school. They vary from district to district, and even from school to school. 

But in our survey of 260 educators and school staff members, 70% said their school offers therapy sessions and more than 80% said their school helps families with referrals to community agencies for mental health support. 

It is very common for families to ask schools for help with behavioral and emotional issues. 

“Mental health issues are common and treatable. Don’t be ashamed to seek help for your child,” one of the educators surveyed told us. “It’s not an indication that you are a ‘bad’ parent.” 

Another educator responded to our survey with the same sentiment: “It’s okay to not be okay. Kids’ mental health isn’t necessarily a reflection of a ‘failure’ on the parent’s part.” 

Although these educators pointed out to us that behavioral problems often do need attention, the good news is that Allegheny County schools can help. 

Resources vary between schools. But throughout the region, “there are resources even for the poorest of families,” another educator told us. So families should reach out as soon as they become concerned: “The sooner issues are addressed, the more likely they can be resolved or at least managed.” 

Where to begin

Parents can start by talking with their child’s classroom teacher or their school counselor. It’s possible that the child’s classroom teacher has already noticed difficulties and tried some interventions, says Alaina Schrader, a nationally certified school counselor who works in the Pittsburgh area. And the school counselor may have ideas for additional interventions and support. 

Another option is contacting the school’s psychologist or social worker, if there is one, or reaching out to the principal. Any of these people should be well aware of the school’s Student Assistance Program (SAP) and the other kinds of help the school can offer.

But if a teacher or school counselor isn’t able to help and isn’t contacting the other members of the school’s SAP team, parents can contact the principal or other administrators directly. Let them know that you’d like your child to participate in the SAP program and you want to schedule a meeting. 

School psychologists can also help. But Schrader says that often a single school psychologist is working with numerous schools within a district, “so they may not be actively involved in every school’s SAP program.” 

Many school districts need more mental health support personnel than their budgets currently provide. By law, districts in Pennsylvania aren’t currently required to have school counselors at every school, and they may lack social workers or psychologists as well. 

So while many schools are incredibly supportive and eager to assist families, parents may have to push for access to mental health support. Fortunately, all Pennsylvania schools are required to have a Student Assistance Program.

What is a Student Assistance Program? (SAP)

SAPs are a free resource that helps connect families with mental health and behavioral services within the school and also community services outside the school. Schools are required to have at least four SAP team members in every building. They may be a combination of administrators, teachers, counselors, psychologists, school social workers, school nurses or other related professional staff. All team members must be trained by a Commonwealth-approved SAP training provider.

This team meets with the student and their family to create an individual plan customized to the student’s specific needs. And they offer support as the student and their family begins using these in-school and out of school services, such as Pittsburgh Mercy or HSAO

Through the SAP team, your child might be offered therapy that would take place in school but be provided by an outside organization like Family Behavioral ResourcesLearn more about SAPs here

In addition, schools may offer: 

  • A school counselor who can provide short-term counseling to a student when there is a family structure change like divorce, incarceration or separation, or when a loved one (or even beloved pet) dies. Even if there isn’t a specific event, the school counselor can talk with the student to help with anxiety or feelings of sadness or other situations. This short term counseling may lead to a referral to a therapist for longer-term counseling. 
  • A range of support groups, parent workshops and classroom lessons focused on preventative skills, and offer other supportive services as well. Many schools have peer-to-peer support groups such as a GSA club to support LGBTQ students. 
  • School counselors or social workers typically also have access to and knowledge of available “basic needs” resources like food pantries, snack bag programs, winter coat drives and more. A dedicated school counselor or social worker will point families toward the community resources they need, says Schrader. They can also consult with parents on tips for helping their children at home with issues like grief, divorce and other challenges. 
  • Some schools also offer Mental Health First Aid training for staff and/or for students. Click here to learn more about mental health first aid.
  • Suicide prevention education: Act 71, which became a Pennsylvania law in 2014,  requires school entities to adopt a youth suicide awareness and prevention policy and provide ongoing professional development in youth suicide awareness and prevention for educators in buildings serving students in grades 6-12. But the exact approach that schools take to suicide awareness varies. 

“One issue that tends to cause people to shy away from talking about depression and suicide is that people believe if they ask someone if they are thinking of hurting or killing themselves, that it’ll give them the idea,’” Schrader says. 

“Research has proven that wrong and has shown us that asking them openly and conversationally can actually save lives. However, there is a risk of contagion when discussing suicide of self-harm in groups, especially in those middle school years. This is why the preventative curriculums typically focus on wellness, coping skills, etc., rather than on the nitty gritty of depression and suicide.

What if your school doesn’t offer the services you need?

Keep asking. And get other parents and caregivers involved in asking for more and better services. 

“The best thing parents can do is advocate for more mental health professionals (like school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists), so that our ratios are more appropriate and we have fewer students on our caseloads, and can do more deep work and more meaningful referrals,” says Schrader. 

“Another great thing would be to reach out and see if their school counselor has an advisory council and ask to serve on it. Equally helpful, would be to see if their district has a safety committee and ask to join it, and then repeatedly and consistently advocate for mental health resources as a key component of school and student safety planning.”  

 Is it common for families to reach out to a school about mental health or family issues?  

“It’s totally common,” says Schrader. “I have parents reaching out to me daily.”

There is no stigma attached to reaching out for mental health support at school, she says, and many kids are learning to check in with their school counselor when an issue comes up. 

“Sometimes parents will be surprised their student knows who I am or has a relationship with me, since they don’t need in-depth counseling,” Schrader says. “But there’s a lot more to my job. Sometimes the parents say things like, ‘I wasn’t sure if he would talk to you or not,’ when usually, it’s not an issue!” 

Keep in mind, Schrader says, that school counselors and other school helpers want to partner with families. They are your allies, in Schrader’s experience, school counselors truly want to help students live happy, comfortable lives. 

“Parents call the shots,” Schrader says, “and we are privileged to walk alongside them!”

Welcome to the Kidsburgh Mental Health Resource Guide. Looks for additional guides: Where parents can access community services in Pittsburgh, the warning signs of mental health difficulties in kids and the meaning of mental health in kids.

For more Kidsburgh stories about mental health, click here

This guide is part of the Kidsburgh Mental Health Series, funded by a grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation. The Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of people who live with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. The Foundation’s vision is to invest in a future where behavioral health is understood, supported, and accepted.