Student Assistance Programs: Helping to Close the Achievement Gap
According to the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, about five to nine percent of children have a serious emotional disturbance. This report also highlights the fact that there are significant unmet needs and barriers to care for children in need of mental health services, often resulting from the stigma that surrounds those who have mental health issues. Another issue for children with mental health needs is the fact that fragmentation and inconsistency of services is the norm rather than the exception.
These issues are important to educators and others working in schools because half of all occurrences of mental health problems begin by age fourteen.1 Often these problems are misdiagnosed or left untreated, resulting in more severe problems that can lead to academic failure and unemployment. About half of all Americans who have an alcohol or drug problem also have a mental disorder. Because the symptoms of mental health issues and chemical dependency can be similar, mental health issues are often left undiagnosed and therefore untreated. For example, a person suffering from depression, social anxiety, or a stress-related disorder may drink or use drugs in an attempt to feel better.2
About half the students diagnosed with behavior problems or as emotionally disturbed will drop out of school.3 There is also a strong link between behavioral problems and emotional disturbances and violence. According to an FBI study, about two-thirds of school shooting incidents involved a victim of bullying. Bullying victims often experience depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem.4The Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), also known as Proposition 63, was passed by California voters in 2004. Beginning January 1, 2005, a one percent tax is levied on each taxpayer’s taxable income in excess of $1 million to fund a transformative mental health system. The MHSA is designed to develop programs and services that address the vast unmet needs of those with mental health problems. The implementation of the MHSA has included an inclusive stakeholder-input approach, so implementation of the six components that comprise the act has been staggered. Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) component were released in 2007.
The statewide education system is a critical partner in ensuring that PEI services and strategies developed through MHSA include school environments and students. Feedback from stakeholders and other partners will be incorporated into draft guidelines for counties to use in developing their local PEI plans. These guidelines will include definitions of prevention and early intervention and provide suggested programs, interventions, and strategies. See the California Department of Mental Health for more information.
How a Student Assistance Program Can Help
The purpose and intent of a Student Assistance Program (SAP) is to identify students who are having problems in school and get them the help that they need. This could include referral to mental health services, either at the school or to a community agency. SAPs are a great way for schools to augment or enhance their current learning support system.
1Mental Illness Exacts Heavy Toll, Beginning in Youth
, 2005, (accessed October 30, 2008)
2Drug Abuse and Addiction , (accessed October 30, 2008)
3Report of Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health: A National Action Agenda
4Getting Results: Developing Safe and Healthy Kids, Update 4: Violence Prevention and Safe Schools. Sacramento: Safe and Healthy Kids Program Office, California Department of Education, 2005, p. 21