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How can we best meet the mental health needs
of students and staff in schools?



Commissioned by the MERC Policy and Planning Council in the spring of 2021, this MERC study will explore how schools provide mental health support to students and staff, with particular attention to how schools have responded to addressing mental health needs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Drawing from existing definitions of mental health from the Center for Disease Control, the Virginia Department of, and other prominent literature on this topic (Deci & Ryan, 2008; Hayes, 2020; Ryff, 2008), the research and study teams developed a common definition of mental health to guide the work of this study.

Mental health is a dynamic state of internal balance which enables individuals to use their abilities to connect and contribute within society. It includes one’s abilities to regulate emotional experiences, flexibly adapt to stress, orient to the present moment, create a sense of coherence, access empathic connection with others, cultivate a harmonious relationship between their body and mind, and take values-driven actions. Mental health can be evaluated and described by psychological challenges like depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as by the presence of positive processes like resilience, coping, and thriving. Mental health is important at every developmental stage from childhood through adolescence to adulthood.



A screenshot of a MERC article in AERA Open about the mental health impacts of COVID-19

This systematic literature review published in AERA Open, an open access journal from the American Educational Research Association, focused on empirical studies exploring the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on PK-12 aged students. There were five themes: 

1) The disruptive nature of COVID-19

2) The connection between caregiver and student mental health

3) The broad mental health impacts of COVID-19

4) Students whose mental health was particularly impacted by COVID-19

5) Evidence of resilience and coping during the pandemic

Recommendations for research, policy, and practice are provided at the conclusion of the article, along with a comprehensive table with all included literature. 




This report offers a rapid review of research about supporting student mental health as they return to school during COVID-19. It pulls from literature on natural disasters like hurricane Katrina, the psychological impacts of quarantine, and emergent research on the mental health impacts of the Coronavirus. The report is structured to answer three overarching questions:

1) Why is it important to address the mental health needs of students in schools?

2) How can we expect COVID-19 to impact the mental health of students?

3) What are some practical strategies for addressing the mental health needs of students and personnel as they return to school?

Links to relevant resources for educators are provided throughout the report.


Blue cover of a research brief focused on suicide prevention policies in schools

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among youth age 10-19, and is an increasing concern in the wake of COVID-19. K-12 schools are crucial spaces for offering mental health support to students, and can implement policies to help prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors. This MERC research and policy brief focuses on education policy related to suicide prevention and response. It is structured to answer five questions:

1) What are recent trends in youth suicide?
2) What does research show about school division policies that are effective in suicide prevention and response?
3) What policies in Virginia and the MERC region guide the prevention of suicide in school divisions?
4) What are the key takeaways and recommendations for preventing youth suicide through education policy?


Report cover for increasing student access to mental health services executive summary

This is an executive summary of a capstone report from research team member Erin Sturgis (Virginia Department of Education). It offers itemized recommendations for the VDOE to support the work of school-based mental health providers (school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists). Click on the image above to access the executive summary and click here to access the full report.

In this episode we spoke with Dr. Julie Ellis (Bridging Communities Regional Career and Technical Center/Governor’s STEM Academy), Dr. Maggie Hartley (The National WWII Museum in New Orleans), Dr. Therese O’Dea (New Kent County Public Schools), Dr. Kate Puschak (Loudon County Public Schools) & Dr. Erin Sturgis (Virginia Department of Education)about strategies for staffing K-12 schools for student mental health supports.

Abstract · Why is it important to support mental health in schools?

Among the critical functions of K-12 schools, they are positioned to support the mental health needs of their students, faculty, staff, and families. To discuss how the research on this topic relates to everyday practice, we spoke with Patrice Beard(Mental Health Liaison for the Center for Family Involvement at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Partnership For People with Disabilities), Laura Early (Coordinator of Psychological and Diagnostic Services in Chesterfield County Public Schools), Amy Johnson (Student Support and Wellness Specialist in Henrico County Public Schools), Matt Shenker (Head of Experience for Pathly, Inc), Erica Daniels (School Counselor at Vernon Johns Middle School in Petersburg City Public Schools), and Felicia Friend-Harris (School Psychologist and Lead Educational Diagnostician for Richmond Public Schools). Hosted by David Naff (MERC Associate Director and former High School Counselor).


Abstract · How has COVID-19 impacted the mental health of PK-12 students?

Authors of a recent systematic literature review discuss their findings related to the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on PK-12 students. Guests include David Naff (MERC Associate Director at Virginia Commonwealth University), Jenna Darby (Research and Evaluation Specialist in Chesterfield County Public Schools), Shenita Williams (Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University), and Melissa Yeung (Student Services Coordinator for the School of Physical Therapy at Bowling Green State University). Click here to access the full article from AERA Open.


Abstract · Supporting Student Mental Health During and After COVID-19

How can we support student mental health during and after COVID-19? MERC researchers conducted a rapid review of research to help answer this question as we prepare to support students when they return to school this fall in any capacity. Report authors David Naff, Shenita Williams, Jenna Furman and Melissa Lee discuss the key takeaways. Click here to access the report.


Defining and supporting mental health in schools

This MERC seminar features Dr. Felecia Friend-Harris (School Psychologist from Richmond Public Schools), Erica Daniels (Assistant Professor from Evangel University) and Dr. David Naff (MERC Associate Director). The conversation focused on how the MERC Supporting Mental Health in Schools Study team arrived at our collective definition of mental health to guide the research and participants had the opportunity to reflect on their own definitions of mental health and how it guides their work.

How has COVID-19 impacted the mental health of our PK-12 students?

In this MERC seminar, researchers and educators explore how COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of PK-12 students. David Naff, PhD (MERC Associate Director), Shenita Williams (Educational Leadership PhD Candidate at VCU and School Social Worker in Henrico County Public Schools), and Jenna Darby, PhD (Research and Evaluation Specialist for Chesterfield County Public Schools) share key findings from a systematic literature review on this topic. Then Misti Mueller, EdD (Assistant Professor of Teaching and Learning at VCU) discusses how exercise and mindfulness can support student mental health, Christina Vitek (Director of Psychological Services for Henrico County Public Schools) shares division level initiatives for ensuring that school-based mental health providers and teachers are ready to meet the social and emotional needs of their students during the pandemic, and Britney Carr (Secondary School Counselor for Hanover Online School in Hanover County Public Schools) offers strategies for meeting students' mental health needs in an online learning environment.


Click here for a downloadable version of the research design

Click here to listen to the podcast discussing an overview of this study



PK-12 aged youth have experienced increasing challenges related to mental health (Deighton et al., 2019; Rice et al., 2018). They are also overwhelmingly more likely to receive mental health support in school settings through trained professionals like school counselors, social workers, and psychologists (Masonbrink & Hurley, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic generated massive disruptions into the lives of PK-12 students, faculty, and families, accelerating existing documented increases in mental health challenges while simultaneously disrupting access to school-based mental health professionals (Naff et al., 2020). Research shows that K-12 students have experienced increasing levels of stress (Al Omari et al., 2020; Gazmararian et al., 2021), anxiety (Duan et al., 2020; Pisano et al., 2021),  depression (Asanov et al., 2021), loneliness (Murata et al., 2021) and contemporary traumas including increased risk for violence and abuse in the home (Halladay et al., 2020) in the wake of the pandemic. Furthermore, rising student health needs during the pandemic may require teachers to offer support (Naff et al., 2020), but faculty may find themselves overwhelmed with the current level of student need while personally struggling with the emotional weight of the pandemic (Carver-Thomas et al., 2021). Thus, it is critical to develop deeper insights into the mental health needs of K-12 students and faculty as well as what schools can do to offer effective support.

The research design is intended to build from existing efforts in the MERC region by collecting and sharing evidence of best practices while gathering data from faculty in MERC schools about their view of the current mental health context. What follows are research questions and methods aligning with two components occurring concurrently. 


Given the breadth and depth of mental health supports in the MERC region described during meetings with school division leadership in preparation for this study, component one will focus on understanding the landscape of interventions and data collection efforts and developing an understanding of the characteristics of successful programs. 

RQ1 What programs and practices do school divisions currently employ to support student and faculty mental health and what characteristics make them successful?

RQ1a What school-based mental health programs and practices currently exist in the MERC region and how do they vary by school level and context?

RQ1b How do school divisions currently evaluate mental health programs and practices?

RQ1c How do school-based mental health providers collect data on services provided to students, families, and faculty?

RQ1d What are the characteristics of successful student and faculty mental health programs and practices and what is their potential for scalability in the MERC region?

Component one will begin with an informational survey sent to school-based mental health providers (school counselors, social workers, and psychologists) and school division leaders employed in the MERC region to gather descriptive information about the interventions and programs they offer for supporting the mental health of their students and faculty, as well as their efforts to collect data on the mental health interventions. The purpose of this survey will be to develop a list of programs, interventions, and data collection efforts related to mental health at the elementary, middle, and high school level that is as comprehensive as possible and then share it throughout MERC school divisions to offer a regional comparison of their existing efforts and potentially develop new programs or modify existing ones. From this list, members of the research and study team will select three programs and conduct a mixed-methods evaluation of each. Programs will be selected based on their potential applicability and scalability throughout the MERC region.


Considering the likelihood that all faculty will play some role in supporting the mental health of their students while shouldering the emotional weight of their own pandemic-related challenges, it will be critical for this study to gather data that captures their perspective. Thus, component two will focus on understanding the current mental health needs of faculty in MERC division schools, how they perceive the current mental health needs of their students relative to the pandemic, and what they consider to be their current capacity to meet those needs.

RQ2 What is the current emotional and professional capacity of faculty and staff in MERC division schools to meet the mental health needs of their students?

RQ2a How do they describe their current mental health?
RQ2b What school and division policies and practices do they see as impacting their mental health?
RQ2c What current mental health supports are they aware of and what additional needs do they perceive?
RQ2d How do they perceive the current mental health of their students?
RQ2e What school and division level policies and practices do they see as impacting the mental health of their students?
RQ2f How equipped do they feel to meet the mental health needs of their students and how does this vary by position and school context?
RQ2g How aligned are central office and faculty perceptions of the current mental health of faculty and students?

MERC researchers will develop a survey of all faculty and central office personnel in the MERC region to understand how they perceive their own mental health as well as the mental health of their students. It is important to conduct this survey with all faculty in MERC school divisions as well as central office personnel because a) it will offer a holistic look at the mental health of school employees in the region, b) it will provide comparisons between position type (e.g. school counselors and teachers) in terms of perceived capacity to meet the mental health needs of students, and c) it will indicate the degree of alignment between central office and school building level perceptions of mental health needs and support capacity. The data collected from this survey will provide insights into the degree of need for supporting faculty and student mental health in MERC division schools, which existing policies and practices help ameliorate and exacerbate mental health challenges, and what recommendations are made for providing necessary support.


Chin-Chih ChenAssociate Professor of Counseling and Special Education

Misti Mueller, Assistant Professor of Teaching And Learning

Jodie Sorraco, Director of Virginia Tiered Systems of Support (VTSS)

David Naff, Associate Director of MERC, Assistant Professor of Foundations of Education

Shenita Williams, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work

Sunny Shin, Professor, VCU School of Social Work and School of Medicine, Director, Innovation in Child and Family Wellness Research, Director, Rise Above, a trauma-informed, social & emotional learning program

Erin Sturgis - SESS Recruitment and Retention Specialist, Virginia Department of Education


Dana Ainsworth, Educational Leadership, Policy, and Justice

Clarence Collins, Educational Leadership EdD Program, K-12

Pamela Crook, Educational Leadership, Policy, and Justice

La Toya Draper, Educational Leadership EdD Program, K-12

Suzanne Hart, Counselor Education and Supervision

Sun (Fiona) Hui, Urban Services Leadership

Jeen Joy, Research, Assessment, and Evaluation

Sherol Southerland, Educational Psychology

Maggie Wallace, Educational Psychology


Wyatt Aldrich

Ciana Cross - MERC Undergraduate Research Assistant 

Matt Shenker - The Mindfulness Counselor

Theo Stripling - University of Chicago Lab School

Pete Willis - Chesterfield County Public Schools

Amirah Bohle, Counselor at Meadowbrook High School
Laura Early, Coordinator of Psychological & Diagnostic Services
Patty Fox, Coordinator of Research and Evaluation
Julie Pickels, School Social Worker

Sarah Ambrose, Counselor at Randolph Elementary School

Britney Carr, Secondary School Counselor at Hanover Online School

Meg Sheriff, English Teacher at Atlee High School

Kristen Stubbe, Counselor at Mechanicsville Elementary School

Donyetta Bryson, School Psychologist

Amy Johnson, Student Support and Wellness Specialist

Elizabeth Parker, Director of School Counseling

Candace Wilkerson, Director of Elementary Education

Felicia Friend-Harris, School Psychologist

Marlene Gooding, School Psychologist

Kelly McCrowell, School Psychologist

Barbara Barden, School Social Worker