ATLANTA–School-based mental health programs have a positive impact on overall school climate, including decreases in discipline incidents over time, according to a study published by Georgia State University researchers in the Georgia Health Policy Center (GHPC) and their partners.
“School-based mental health programs that are focused on collaboration and bringing systems together to connect children, families, schools and community can be an effective way to leverage resources and more fully develop healthy, enriching environments where children can grow and learn,” said Danté McKay, director of the Office of Children, Young Adults & Families at the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD).
Previous research has shown up to one in five children may suffer from a mental health disorder, yet about half are unable to access needed care. To address this demand for access to mental health services for children, many communities are developing school-based mental health programs.
“These programs often augment current services supporting mental health in the schools (for example, through a school counselor) and provide a more comprehensive, integrated program of prevention, identification and treatment within a school,” said Ann DiGirolamo, the study’s lead author and director of behavioral health at the GHPC.
The Georgia Apex Program, which DBHDD piloted in 2015, is now being implemented statewide. It has the three-part goal of 1) promoting earlier identification of and intervention for mental health needs 2) increasing access to needed mental health services and 3) fostering greater coordination between Georgia’s community mental health providers and local schools and school districts.
The study, published in School Psychology Review, included 359 Georgia public schools participating in the Georgia Apex Program during the 2018–19 academic year and 359 nonparticipating matched schools. Just under half of participating schools were elementary schools and just over half were in a rural area.
Data show participation in the Georgia Apex Program had a significant effect on school climate, a measure of the quality and character of school life, including a significantly greater decrease in discipline incidents over time, compared to nonparticipating schools.
“Future research should continue to explore the different components of school-based mental health programs across this continuum and the various factors related to enhanced success and sustainability,” said Dimple Desai, a senior research associate at GHPC and leader of the center’s work with the Georgia Apex Program.
By Lori Solomon
Director of Behavioral Health
Georgia Health Policy Center
Ann DiGirolamo is the director of behavioral health at the Georgia Health Policy Center and director of the Center of Excellence for Children’s Behavioral Health. She is a research associate professor in the School of Social Work at Georgia State and an adjunct faculty member at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. DiGirolamo provides expertise in research, evaluation, workforce development, and policy related to child and adolescent behavioral health, working with communities and within public health systems to promote an effective System of Care for youth with behavioral health needs.