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The pandemic uncovered a harsh global mental health emergency. Photo: Pixabay.

New study links student success to mental health tests

Tests of this type also promote better conditions in the school and the community.

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An analysis led by the University of California, Riverside (UCR), urging school officials to defer to students' family, cultural, and community backgrounds, led to a different approach to this type of psychological testing, which is taking place with increasing frequency due to events such as school shootings and other forms of violence.

In "A Roadmap to Equitable School Mental Health Screening," recently published online in the Journal of School Psychology, a team of experts in school mental health systems, including UCR assistant professor Stephanie Moore, advocates for a holistic approach for mental health testing.

The study highlights how mental health screenings that focus solely on identifying at-risk students without regard to their cultural backgrounds and strengths “may not only be ineffective, but may also perpetuate harmful oppressive practices that deter rather than promote student success”.

Moore stressed: “The social and environmental conditions that contribute to poorer mental health, such as economic instability, food insecurity, and exposure to neighborhood violence, also increase individual risk for violence or self-harm. Our focus, then, must shift toward identifying these factors and addressing them in ways that lessen their impacts on student wellbeing.”

Multicultural approach to address mental health

Considering that most educators in U.S. public schools come from a white middle class background and must work to control their own biases, which can be subtle or even subconscious, the study recommends asking the right questions of families and community members beforehand as an essential first step in learning about the needs of students as well as the strengths of those around them.

“Culturally sensitive mental health screenings are powerful tools to get students the help they need. They not only increase academic success for individuals, but also help schools be more responsive to student needs and help communities to be more resilient. Ideally, mental health screenings should be conducted on a periodic basis as schools do for math, reading, and writing skills,” added Moore.

Mental Health has to be seriously considered. Photo: Pixabay.
Mental Health has to be seriously considered. Photo: Pixabay.

Tearing down cultural biases

By highlighting how some of the tools used by educational institutions to address mental health care have implicit built-in biases, culturally appropriate tests can go far beyond identifying students who need specialized counseling or resources to succeed, while also they may reveal greater strengths or needs in schools and their surrounding communities.

“When the focus for screening is to identify an individual’s mental health risk, “educators and schools disregard social determinants of health and often implicitly ask, ‘How can we get these disadvantaged students to be or function more like middle-class, White ones?’,” stated Anna Long, co-author and associate professor at Louisiana State University.

About these findings, Moore noted:

For example, teachers may misinterpret what is play between a boy and his friend, (and believe), ‘Oh, that child is really aggressive.’ Because of cultural differences and biases, they don't understand what play is common in this boy’s community and instead judge him as having behavior problems that need to be addressed.

Study suggestions

The analysis suggests that educational institutions use two approaches to promote mental health testing and treatment:

  • Strengths — Invite students to participate in extracurricular sports and religious programs that help them to be less isolated and motivate them to participate more actively with their communities. Here they can also identify strategies to better leverage mentoring for students within their families.
  • Needs — Screening teams that find that food insecurity, for example, is a chronic problem among certain groups of students, can advocate for expanding school meal programs, providing snacks, or partnering with community agencies to offer meals to families, especially on weekends and during holidays and summer.

“Using screening results to build systems of supportive interventions can also combat disproportionate referrals for special education or exclusionary discipline of students belonging to certain cultural groups,” stressed the report.

Challenges 

While sharing the report, Moore acknowledged that providing universal mental health screening in public schools requires an investment of both time and resources, and may face resistance from school leaders who may believe that such testing falls outside the scope of public education. 

However, the study authors say the costs are justified because better mental health improves academic performance, and this translates into positive socioeconomic outcomes.

“If we were to ask families about mental health, most families would say, ‘Yes, I want my child to be healthy and well. So, I think at a fundamental level, we can find agreement,” concluded Moore.

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