Mental Health in School

Mental heath is a vastly unmet need for students in foster care. For many foster youth with mental health disorders or disabilities, their challenges are written off, or allowed to slip through the cracks, until they manifest in behavior that may lead to a child's suspension or expulsion. 

Foster youth face a wide array of mental health challenges, including depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.  Even if your student is receiving support for a mental health disorder outside of school, it can easily creep into their academic life in the form of mood swings, erratic behavior, missed class, difficulty socializing, and more.  There are many resources in the school, however, that you can help your youth access.  Here are some ways to help you and your youth navigate potential mental health challenges and the impact they could have on the youth's educational success. 

Red Flags

If your youth has not been diagnosed with a mental health challenge or if they are currently being treated for one, you can keep an eye out for warning signs that something may not be right.  Some of these signals include:

  • Excessive sleeping or lack of sleep
  • Decrease self-esteem
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Abnormal eating patterns
  • Personality shifts such as increased anger or sensitivity
  • Changes in behavior such as defensiveness, aloofness, or isolation
  • Increased difficulty in contacting or spending time with your youth

If you notice one of these red flags, bring it up with your youth in a safe and supportive way. Ask how they're feeling, if something has been happening in their personal life, or if they feel supported by their school and community. If your youth avoids the questions, don't push, but try to find other angles through which you could get them to open up. You can also check in with their social worker, teachers, and caregivers. 

Supporting Mental Health at School

Get the conversation started with some of the key people in your student’s education so that everyone is informed and up to date on the challenges facing your youth.  People to check in with include:

  • Teacher
  • School nurse
  • School counselor/psychologist
  • Principal or assistant principal
  • IEP team (if applicable)

While these people all deal with a large number of students and may not always be as responsive as you’d like, you can still hold them accountable. As a CASA, you can expect: 

  • To have your questions answered
  • To be updated on changes in your youth's situation
  • To be considered a member of the team and treated as such
  • To have information you provide be kept confidential

Please keep in mind that as a CASA, you are privy to certain information that can and should be kept confidential, such as the circumstances that led to your youth's placement in foster care. While you can share pertinent information such as dietary needs, current medications, and relevant diagnoses, please only do so if it would benefit your youth for other provides to have that knowledge, and if they do not have it already.

Most schools have a several resources available to support foster youth with mental health challenges.  These could include a school nurse, health and gym classes, a counselor, or a social worker. Your youth should be able to access these resources as needed with no extra cost to them or their caregivers. Ask your school's administration for information about your options

Proactive Steps

One of the most disruptive challenges of having and treating a mental health disorder is the tendency to miss class or display disruptive behavior. 

If you know your youth will miss class for an appointment or a mental health setback:   

  • Notify the school
  • Get missed schoolwork from the teacher
  • Talk to teachers/counselors about how absence will be explained to peers

If your youth experiences disciplinary action because of a behavior caused by their mental health disorder, such as lashing out, disruptive behavior in class, or starting a fight with a classmate, they are entitled to receive consideration through an IEP. Review the IEPs and Special Education section as well as the Managing Discipline section of this guide for more information. 

Stay Aware

The best way to stay aware of the challenges your youth may face in school, and to stay ahead to prevent them, is to remain informed. Here are some questions you can ask the educational team to make sure your information is up to date and you can prepare for future potential issues: 

  • How and how often will I be updated about my youth's academic standing (re: classes, coursework, emotional disruption, etc.)?
  • Who do I call with new information about my youth?
  • Will the school nurse or counselor be involved in the planning and information sharing?
  • What medical forms do you need?
  • Who is responsible for keeping track of medical records?
  • How do I ensure my young person receives the medicine they need during school hours?

If there is a disagreement with the school, bring it up as quickly as possible. Seek help from the student’s social worker and any other resources available to support you.  You also have the option to reach out at the district level if you cannot resolve the issue.

Mental health has the potential to undermine your youth’s academic experience but with active involvement, you can help keep your youth’s academic performance on track.

Additional resources:

Partnering with Your Child’s School: A Guide for Parents: See pages 5-7 for information relevant to mental health

Watch for Danger Signs: A helpful piece on identifying potential warning signs of a mental health disorder.

How Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Are Treated: More information on the treatment of various emotional and behavioral disorders.

Mental Health Problems in Foster Care Children: A document exploring the treatment process for mental health problems in foster youth.

Ways to Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem: Guidelines for improving youth self-esteem regardless of their mental health.

Sound Advice on Mental Health: A series of interviews with mental health experts

Wellbeing Checklists: A useful guide to review to see whether there are holes in your youth’s wellbeing

The Role of Schools: Some institutional options for schools in supporting youth with mental health challenges.