State education officials plan to ask for $100M for school mental health 

Every other year, thousands of North Carolina high school and middle school students answer questions about their mental health as part of a survey administered nationally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The responses from students in 2021 showed dramatic declines in measures of mental health in recent years. The North Carolina Board of Education reviewed this data Wednesday and discussed plans to improve services to students.

The good news from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey is that fewer North Carolina students reported smoking, vaping, or using alcohol or marijuana. The bad news is that nearly every measure of mental health worsened.

More than 1 in 5 North Carolina students reported they seriously considered attempting suicide in the prior year, and the rates were higher for girls and gay, lesbian and bisexual students. Fewer than half of high school students reported they feel good about themselves, and a third said they “feel alone in their lives.”

“This data just is screaming to me the need for more school counselors and social workers, high school psychiatrists and psychologists,” said NC Teacher of the Year Leah Carper, who serves on the board as an advisory member.

Carper said her school shares those mental health positions with multiple other schools.

“It’s been obvious for years that we need more, but it never feels like we’re getting more,” Carper said.

State Board Chair Eric Davis responded that the Department of Public Instruction plans to ask the General Assembly for additional funding in the next state budget for school mental health.

The department’s legislative request will include $100 million in recurring funds for schools in low-income counties to hire qualified school nurses and social workers.

“We are championing this next session,” said Jamey Falkenbury, the department’s director of government affairs.

State education officials also plan to request $10 million in recurring funds to compensate school social workers for holding a master’s degree and $5 million for a school psychologist internship program.

“I would say, just as one board member, we’re just barely at the tip of the iceberg of what the need is, which is why it’s so important to get these requests and get them filled and get professionals hired and working,” Board Chair Eric Davis said.

The board also discussed the state’s School Behavioral Health Action Plan, which includes efforts to bring telehealth services and mental health first aid to schools and to better connect schools to behavioral health services in their communities.