Supporting Academic Achievement through School-Based Mental Health Services: A Multisite Evaluation of Reading Outcomes across One Academic Year

By Wegmann, Kate M.; Powers, Joelle D. et al. | School Social Work Journal, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Supporting Academic Achievement through School-Based Mental Health Services: A Multisite Evaluation of Reading Outcomes across One Academic Year


Wegmann, Kate M., Powers, Joelle D., Swick, Danielle C., Watkins, Charity S., School Social Work Journal


When assessing the need for school-based mental health services, it is critical to consider the prevalence of mental health issues among children and adolescents. It is estimated that, in any year, about 5 percent of elementary-school-aged children will experience moderate to severe emotional, behavioral, or developmental difficulties (Ghandour, Kogan, Blumberg, Jones, & Perrin, 2012). What is even more alarming is that approximately one of every four youth between the ages of five and eighteen in the United States has had a mental health condition during the last year, and one of every three is anticipated to experience at least one mental health concern during the course of his or her lifetime (Merikangas, Nakamura, & Kessler, 2009). Some mental disorders (in particular, generalized anxiety disorder and depression) commonly emerge as early as middle childhood (Merikangas et al., 2009; National Institute of Mental Health, 2011).

A variety of individual and environmental characteristics may place a child at risk of developing mental health challenges. Individual-level factors including poor physical health, lower cognitive functioning, prenatal or perinatal exposure to illness or harmful chemicals, and inadequate nutrition are predicted to increase the likelihood of developing mental health issues (Merikangas et al., 2009). In addition to individual characteristics, contextual factors in a child's environment may increase the probability of developing a mental health condition. Experiences of family stress, trauma, neighborhood violence, and challenges deriving from low socioeconomic status during early childhood may reduce the cognitive and socio-emotional well-being of children, making them more susceptible to developing symptoms and exhibiting signs suggesting the presence of mental health problems (Merikangas et al., 2009).

Despite the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and a growing body of literature substantiating the prevalence of mental health conditions among children and adolescents (Committee on School Health, 2004; Merikangas et al., 2009), the majority of youth with mental disorders do not receive adequate treatment or any treatment at all (Ghandour et al., 2012; Merikangas et al., 2009; Weissberg, 2000). Untreated mental health needs can have serious negative consequences for the life outcomes of children, increasing their probability of experiencing challenges across numerous life domains, including academic performance.

Students who have not received adequate treatment to address their mental health conditions are at greater risk of experiencing various negative outcomes academically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009 almost 10 percent of school-aged children were limited in their ability to perform academic tasks appropriate for their age group due to mental or emotional problems (Joe, Joe, & Rowley, 2009). More specifically, untreated symptoms of mental disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression may affect concentration, comprehension, and communication skills, all of which may influence a student's ability to perform at the same level as his or her peers (Bussing, Porter, Zima, & Mason, 2012). Untreated mental health conditions may also have negative impacts on cognitive milestones and ability to focus in the classroom, as well as more basic aspects of academic performance, including school enrollment, rates of absenteeism, school completion, and future educational attainment (Duchesne, Vitaro, Larose, & Tremblay, 2008; Guzman, Jellinek, George, & Hartley, 2011; Joe et al., 2009). When facing these various threats to school success, students are likely to achieve lower scores in reading and demonstrate less fluency in reading, writing, and language (Bussing et al., 2012; Corkum, McGonnell, & Schachar, 2010; DeSocio & Hootman, 2004; Geary, Hoard, Nugent, & Bailey, 2012; Guzman et al. …

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