Mental health programs in schools—Growing body of evidence supports effectiveness

August 10, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

School-based mental health programs can reach large numbers of children, with increasing evidence of effectiveness in improving mental health and related outcomes, according to a research review in the September/October issue of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

"This review provides evidence that large-scale, school-based programs can be implemented in a variety of diverse cultures and educational models as well as preliminary evidence that such programs have significant, measurable positive effects on students' emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes," write J. Michael Murphy, EdD, of Massachusetts General Hospital and colleagues.

School-Based Programs Focus on Preventing Mental Health Problems

An estimated 13 percent of and adolescents worldwide have significant problems such as anxiety, disruptive behavior disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and depression. Especially if left untreated, these disorders often persist into adulthood, with lasting effects on many aspects of life.

Over the years, many programs have been designed to deliver preventive in schools, where children and teens spend so much of their time. Substantial research now shows that school-based mental interventions can be widely implemented and can lead to population-wide improvements in mental health, physical health, educational, and social outcomes.

Dr. Murphy and colleagues identified and analyzed school-based mental health programs that have been implemented on a large scale and have collected data on specific mental health outcomes. The authors estimate that the eight largest programs have reached at least 27 million children over the last decade.

The interventions vary in their focus, methods, and goals. The largest program, called "Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports" (PBIS), focuses on positive social culture and behavioral support for all students. The second-largest , called "FRIENDS," aims to reduce anxiety and to teach skills for managing emotions and coping with stress—not only to children, but also to parents and teachers.

Most of the school-based mental health interventions were designed to focus on mental health promotion or primary prevention for all students in the school; some programs also target students at high risk of . Most of the programs have been implemented across school districts, while some have been introduced on the state or national level.

Available research provides "moderate to strong" evidence that these interventions are effective in promoting good mental health and related outcomes. For example, studies of FRIENDS have reported reductions in anxiety, while PBIS has shown improved reading scores and fewer school suspensions. Other programs have shown benefits such as reducing bullying at school; one has even been linked to lower rates of substance abuse in young adulthood.

The authors point out that school-based mental health interventions have been studied almost exclusively in high-income countries—despite the fact that about 80 percent of the global population of children live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). But there's evidence that this may be changing, since three of the eight largest programs have been implemented "to scale" in LMICs. One of these, called "Skills for Life," has been running on a national basis in Chile for more than a decade.

"Data sets of increasing quality and size are opening up new opportunities to assess the degree to which preventive interventions for child mental health, delivered at scale, can play a role in improving health and other life outcomes," Dr. Murphy and colleagues conclude. With ongoing data collection and new evaluation frameworks, they believe that school-based mental health programs have the potential to "improve population-wide health outcomes of the next generation."

Explore further: Programs that teach emotional intelligence in schools have lasting impact

More information: J. Michael Murphy et al. Scope, Scale, and Dose of the World's Largest School-Based Mental Health Programs, Harvard Review of Psychiatry (2017). DOI: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000149

Related Stories

Programs that teach emotional intelligence in schools have lasting impact

July 12, 2017
Social and emotional learning programs for youth not only immediately improve mental health, social skills, and learning outcomes but also continue to benefit children years later, according to new research from UBC, University ...

Programs for college students suffering from depression, anxiety and stress

April 22, 2015
Is it possible to prevent mental health problems in higher education students? The answer is "yes" according to a team of psychologists from Loyola University Chicago who conducted a careful, systematic review of 103 universal ...

National school-based mental health intervention improves outcomes for at-risk students

September 22, 2015
A national school-based mental health program that is now reaching almost one quarter of all elementary school students in Chile appears to have produced significant improvements in both behavioral and academic outcomes, ...

Non-specialist health workers play important role in improving mental health in developing countries

November 19, 2013
Non-specialist health workers are beneficial in providing treatment for people with mental, neurological and substance-abuse (MNS) problems in developing countries – where there is often a lack of mental health professionals ...

Go to work to improve your mental health

May 19, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Ask most people where they should learn about good mental health and they would be pretty unlikely to say their workplace. For many of us, the workplace is where we are the most stressed, anxious or depressed.

Integrating mental health care: New series

April 30, 2013
The first article in a landmark series to help health care workers and providers, donors, and decision makers understand the importance of including mental health care in global health programs is being published in this ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.