It is becoming increasingly clear that it is financially beneficial for schools to create, exacerbate, exaggerate, or prolong mental health issues in students. The incentives are enormous, and the marketing is easy. They prey on the worst fears of parents to justify mental health surveys, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and daily check-ins of their emotions. But is this really about ensuring the students’ mental well-being or garnering more funds for the K-12 system from grants and the federal government? 

Mental health became a primary focus for schools after they closed for months and relegated students to “virtual learning” and isolation from classmates. Once classes returned to normal, it was clear that there was a tremendous loss of learning among almost every demographic, but it was also clear that the isolation took a toll on the well-being of many students. Children are social beings. They are meant to laugh, talk, and spend time with other children. School closures stripped many of this opportunity. Of course, they were sad and lonely, but were they in need of psychological care or just a sense of normalcy? Rather than admit the reality and cause of the situation and focus on their primary role of education, schools essentially turned into mental health centers. They took on the role of diagnosing and treating mental health issues, and it paid dividends for their budgets. 

While everyone involved in education knew that the learning loss was severe, many also knew the issue that would deliver more significant funds to schools was mental health. The Biden administration plans to double the amount of mental health professionals in schools. In May 2023, the administration announced that “the Department of Education (Department) has awarded $286 million across 264 grantees in 48 states and territories to boost the training, hiring, and diversification of mental health professionals through two grants – the School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) grant program and Mental Health Service Professional (MHSP) grant program.” The administration boasts that “these funds collectively will prepare more than 14,000 new mental health professionals for America’s schools.” This is just a small part of the $1 billion initiative created by the Safer Communities Act and set to be spent by the federal government over the next five years (on top of the $1 billion in Stronger Connections federal grants allocated to the states). These mental health federal funds are all in addition to the $190 billion windfall of money given to the schools for “emergency” COVID relief. Even before this, funding for “mental health initiatives” already flowed freely through private and government grants. 

If all of this money and effort reflected an improvement in overall well-being, there could be some argument for it, but that is not often the case. State education leaders in Illinois invested heavily in SEL and created Learning Hubs to expand mental health programs to students. As of February 2024, there were 50 Illinois schools with zero students proficient in math and 30 with zero in reading. Ironically, studies show that people with low literacy skills tend to suffer from mental health issues at a greater rate. So, the cycle continues, and schools have more reasons to ask the government for funding to combat mental illness that they are partially responsible for. 

At what point do we break the cycle? At what point do we demand that public schools hone in on their primary job of educating the students in their care for nine months out of the year? At what point do we stop funding schools that dabble in psychology they aren’t designed to deliver? Some students may have experienced trauma or suffer from depression and anxiety, but not all students do. Group therapy sessions led by unlicensed healthcare professionals are not appropriate in the classroom setting. Incidentally, those group therapy sessions do more harm than good for the students who have suffered trauma.  

School districts will not initiate the needed separation between schools and mental health providers. There is entirely too much money tied to the programs and services they promise to offer. It will be up to parents and legislators to sever that relationship. Parents must be vigilant in ensuring the schools do not provide mental health services throughout the school day without consent. That means asking their children about any surveys, check-ins, “counseling sessions,” or “cooperative learning structures” in which they were made to participate. Legislators can look at the data and conclude that mental health should be delivered in the appropriate setting by the proper professionals and refuse to allocate any more funding for it in schools.