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May is Mental Health Awareness Month – How Does Mental Health Impact Your Child’s Education?

What is Mental Health Awareness Month?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month (MHAM).  MHAM was established in 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in our lives and to celebrate recovery from mental illness.  Although mental health disease has always been a part of our society, since the COVID pandemic, adults and children have reported a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms. 

In February of 2023, the CDC released a report that surveyed 17,232 American students in 2021. It found that nearly three (3) in five (5) teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, double the rate of boys, and one (1) in three (3) girls seriously considered attempting suicide. The findings also showed high levels of violence, depression, and suicidal thoughts among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. More than one (1) in five (5) of these students reported attempting suicide in the year before the survey.  Mental health awareness is critical to reducing the misconceptions and stigma associated with mental health disease(s) and encourages youth who are suffering to seek help and find a support network within their family, community, and school. 

How can mental health impact my child’s education?

According to the CDC, without early diagnosis and treatment, children with mental disorders can have struggles at home, in school, and in forming friendships. Mental health disorders can preclude your child from attending school (school avoidance), which can lead to school attendance issues.  Mental health disorders can sometimes lead to incorrect disciplinary decisions, such as truancy referrals, or removals from school.  For example, your child begins to skip class because of anxiety or panic disorder, but the school perceives the behavior as insubordinate and issues an in-school suspension. Or, your child refuses to go to school because of high levels of anxiety or depression and the school issues a truancy petition against your family. Mental health disorders can prevent your child from accessing their education, even if they are able to physically make it into their school building. Anxiety, Depression, Oppositional defiant disorder, Conduct disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and other mental health disorders can hinder your child from focusing in school, absorbing the materials being taught, or performing at their highest level of achievement. From a social/emotional perspective, mental health disorders can impact your child’s ability to develop friendships, interact positively with peers and participate in extracurricular activities or sports because of the isolation they may feel.

What supports and services can schools provide to support my child’s mental health?

Generally speaking, all Pennsylvania public schools should provide the following or similar services to all students:

  • Guidance and school counseling programs and services;
  • psychological services in the form of educational testing and evaluations, and counseling; health services (nurses);
  • behavior support specialists and services;
  • and the Student Assistance Program (SAP), which assists school personnel in identifying issues, including alcohol, drugs, mental health, and other behaviors and factors that pose a barrier to a student’s learning and school success.

Your school district’s intermediate unit also provides a plethora of mental health and related services, day programs, or even partial hospitalization programs for students suffering from mental health-related conditions.  Every intermediate unit offers differing services and support, so make sure you reach out to your child’s school district and intermediate unit to find out what is available for your family. For more information on this, visit the Education Law Center’s guide on partial hospitalization and day program options in Pennsylvania, https://www.elc-pa.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Student-Rights-in-Partial-Hospitalization-Day-Treatment-2023.pdf.

Section 504 Plan Eligibility

If your child’s mental health needs “substantially limit” a “major life activity” and they need help to participate in or benefit from education or extracurricular programs, your child may qualify for accommodations in school. Depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental/behavioral health conditions all can fall under mental health needs which substantially limit a major life activity, such as learning, listening, seeing, hearing, etc. When this happens, your child may qualify for a Section 504 Plan. A Section 504 Plan, sometimes referred to as a 504 service agreement, is a written agreement between a parent and the school, describing what accommodations will be provided to your child in school so that your child can participate in and benefit from school activities. The Section 504 Plan will list the services and accommodations that your child needs. Common examples of accommodations for your child’s mental health needs could include: “cool down” or break pass to leave the classroom; allow breaks as necessary, adult to seek help from when feeling anxious or depressed; or preferential seating.

 IEP Eligibility

If your child’s mental health needs require specially designed instruction and related services, then your child may qualify for special education through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The most common way for children with mental health conditions to become eligible for an IEP is either under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI) or Emotional Disturbance (ED).  To become eligible, the school district would have to conduct an Evaluation Report (ER) to determine whether your child qualifies for special education services. Some examples of services within an IEP for these children can include therapy with an emotional support counselor, guidance counselor, or school psychologist, social/emotional support in the form of direct instruction in coping skills, and a flexible schedule including at-home instruction or virtual instruction if deemed necessary.

What resources are available to me in the community?

Multiple organizations across the country not only acknowledge MHAM, but they provide tools and resources to individuals struggling with their mental health. Some of these organizations include:

On a local level, the PA Department of Education has resources listed online HERE, and NAMI lists local organizations in PA HERE. Of note, you can also explore applying for Medical Assistance or Medicaid (MA) for your child. Children who qualify for MA will receive an ACCESS card. There are a variety of mental health and behavioral services covered by MA, including but not limited to behavioral health rehabilitation services, psychiatric hospital stays, outpatient therapy, and partial hospitalization programs.

How can we help?

If your child’s mental health is impacting their education, obtaining an appropriate evaluation to assess these needs and programming for them in school can be critical. The law firm of Raffaele & Associates is dedicated to serving the legal needs of students, children, and families. Our trusted team of attorneys, education consultants, and staff provide skilled, thoughtful representation for your case.

We have experience helping families like yours through the review of a child’s educational records, examining their mental health records (if they exist), speaking to their doctors or providers, helping to request appropriate evaluation(s) in school, and advocating for educational services which address their mental health needs.

If you would like to get in touch with us, please contact us here. We look forward to speaking with you.

The information within this article is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Please consult an attorney for individual advice regarding your personal situation.


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