Dr. John Dignan knows the importance of treating mental health.
“We’ve had a school-based health clinic here at Adams Middle School for the past 25 years," he said.
Dignan is the superintendent of Wayne-Westland Community Schools in Michigan.
The district was early to embrace what's now catching on across the country: school-based health clinics. They’re in-house opportunities for physical and mental health care.
“Sometimes we take for granted some of the barriers that get in the way of kids learning,” Dignan said. “If you’re dealing with something, whether it’s mental health or food insecurity, it’s kind of hard to figure out, like, your English and math classes and need to learn.”
Students appear to be taking advantage of the services.
“I was having difficulties at home with a relationship with a parent,” said Brooklynn Stafford, a student at Adams Middle School. “And having another adult that was not immediately related to the situation that I could talk to and get advice from was very helpful.”
Dignan says the need is real, especially in his community.
“We’re in a blue-collar community where, if people don’t go to work, they don’t get paid," he said. "So, to have the luxury of having a school-based health clinic and contacts for people to talk to and stuff is phenomenal. I couldn’t even imagine not having it, especially during the pandemic."
A survey from the Centers for Disease Control found nearly four in 10 high school students reported regular mental health struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half said that “at some point during the past 12 months, they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row, such that they stopped doing some usual activities”. This applied to 57% of girls and 76% of students who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
In 2021, high school graduation rates fell in states like Tennessee, Indiana, Colorado, California, and Michigan. But all states received billions from last year’s American Rescue Plan specifically for education.
In Summit County, Colorado, the district budgeted for a full-time social-emotional wellness coordinator. Other districts, like many in Michigan, invested in clinics.
Cindy Marten, deputy secretary at the Department of Education, believes a whole community will notice the difference the clinics will make for children.
“They’re using this to make the down-payment investment to get this infrastructure up and running,” Marten said.
But who will keep it running? Rescue plan dollars are temporary. States and districts know they will need to step up to keep the programs alive.
In Michigan, the governor’s proposed 2023 budget calls for $11 million to open 40 new school-based health clinics.