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YPL study calls for mental health training and support of DPSCD staff 

March 7, 2022

Schools are a promising setting for mental health services – they meet students where they are, surrounded by adults that they trust. Yet more research is needed to determine the most effective way to deliver those services within schools. In a collaboration with U-M’s Medical School, Robin Jacob, co-director of the Youth Policy Lab, and other researchers surveyed students and staff in Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) to collect that data. 

In their article, “Mental health needs in a large urban school district: Findings from a web-based survey,” Jacob and her fellow researchers, including Katja Robinson, Megan Foster Friedman, Anna Foster, and Hersheena Rajaram, also from YPL, and Elizabeth Koschmann, Natalie Rodriguez-Quintana, Jennifer Vichich, and Maureen Smith from Michigan Medicine’s Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students (TRAILS), found that DPSCD students experience high rates of trauma exposure, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. All DPSCD symptom rates, except for anxiety, were higher than the national averages. Specifically, they found that Black male DPSCD students had a higher rate of suicidal ideations than the national average for Black males. They also reported that LGBQA+ students were more likely to experience symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts compared to their peers. 

When looking over the staff data, they found that there was a high level of need for staff support and professional development. Staff indicated that they wanted to learn about the best practices for supporting students affected by depression, anxiety, trauma, or PTSD. But, only 38% of staff reported knowledge of a protocol to screen or identify students in need of mental health services. 

After presenting their findings to DPSCD audiences, including the superintendent’s cabinet, building principals, and the social work and counseling departments, the district identified three priorities:

  1. Universal education and awareness regarding the mental health needs of DPSCD students.
  2. Building school mental health professional expertise in evidence-based mental health care approaches.
  3. Promoting timely and accurate identification of mental health concerns in students and improving student suicide risk identification and referral.

The authors note that their findings underscore the fact that mental health needs vary by community.

“These findings underscore that mental health needs vary substantially based on community context and that communities contending with poverty and environmental stress are facing disproportionate levels of need,” they wrote. “In districts like DPSCD, addressing the self-care needs of staff is clearly a high priority—without responding to high rates of vicarious trauma and burnout, providing effective support to students would remain compromised. Further, given the high rates of mental illness and trauma exposure, substantial resources and comprehensive, system-wide approaches are likely needed.”

The article concludes by suggesting the study serve as a template for other communities: “This study demonstrates one way that place-based data and community research engagement can be leveraged to set priorities and implement district-wide, comprehensive policies and practices that are directly tailored to the local community.”

Read the entirety of the study, “Mental health needs in a large urban school district: Findings from a web-based survey,” published in the Health Services Research.