School-Based Mental Health Breaks Through Barriers

by Katie Dorn on April 12, 2022

As a mother of seven grown children and a mental health professional, I have seen firsthand the special opportunity schools have to support young people’s mental health. After all, school is where children and adolescents spend most of their waking hours each week for most of the year!

School-based support breaks through barriers

Research is clear that there is an ever-growing number of students in need of mental and behavioral health services. And a mental healths support system that reaches students at school is uniquely suited to overcome the common barriers of access, cost and stigma of seeking mental health support.

A 2019 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, showed that nearly 60% of the 3.8 million youth aged 12-17 who reported a major depressive episode in 2019 did not receive any treatment. But those who did receive help? The majority got the support they needed only at school.

Districts have a powerful opportunity

The need for school-based mental health support isn’t new. Even before the pandemic, a third of U.S. students struggled with anxiety, depression, trauma or attention issues that made it difficult to focus, stay motivated and learn. 

The pandemic forced students and their families to isolate, adapt and adjust for learning, social interactions and daily routines. And this led to an even greater need for student mental health services, with almost half of our country’s young people experiencing negative impacts on mental health, including feeling chronically unmotivated, overwhelmed, stressed and anxious.

And as we finish the third school year affected by COVID, it’s time to focus on effective, equitable and sustainable systems that remove barriers to the mental health support that students need for success in school and in life.

School-based mental health support doesn’t just improve the wellbeing of the children and teenagers who need it by breaking down traditional barriers of stigma and access. It also changes the trajectory of each student’s learning experience for years to come.

EU Kids working

Partnership and implementation — with results

We learned years ago that what schools need is a turnkey tool that works for students, staff and school budgets. Our scalable approach helps schools increase their mental health services and counseling capacity without the need to change resource adoptions, hire new staff, train teachers or even implement a new school-wide program. 

With EmpowerU, your staff identify students to participate in our Tier 2 course, which lasts 8-12 weeks and can begin any time of year. Students complete brief daily lessons and connect with an EmpowerU coach with specific master’s-level credentials and training. The interactive lessons and one-on-one coaching are especially helpful for Tier 2 students, who receive the personalized support they need to get through a stressful time and acquire a lasting skillset.


Even students like EmpowerU

Schools aren’t the only fans of EmpowerU — our data tells us that students are right there with them. Our approach focuses on small, bite-sized changes that can be made to work toward personal, emotional, social and academic goals, and we track progress within each goal area using the Transtheoretical Change Model 

Transtheoretical Model Stages of Change. Precontemplation - no recognition or interest. Contemplation - Thinking about making change. Preparation - Taking small steps toward change. Actively - Actively making change. Maintenance - Ongoing practice of new, healthier behavior.

And from the time a student begins EmpowerU to the end, our students progress from thinking about making goal changes to actively working on their goals each day. In fact, our three-year data study shows that the average EmpowerU student advances through 1.8 stages of change — nearly twice the typical rate — in all four of their goal areas.

A senior who completed the EmpowerU course during the 2020-21 school year explains the difference it made:

I have a much better understanding of how my stress can affect me, and i know how to deal with it and cope in a healthy way. I loved this class, one of my favorite classes that I've ever taken. There has been so much personal growth that I've experienced and I'm really grateful that I got the opportunity to take this course!

Healthy students learn better

In a time like this, it’s tempting to focus only on the mental health crisis that our young people are facing. But what many years of data have shown is that work to support the social and emotional wellbeing of students will deliver a broad range of benefits.

For more than 20 years, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, has been exploring and measuring the many benefits of school based mental health on student growth and learning. For example, programs that meet quality standards have been shown to increase students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points, along with better classroom behavior, stress management and attitudes about themselves and others.

And a meta-analysis that CASEL completed in 2017 even showed that benefits are long-lasting for academics, attitudes and social behaviors — up to 18 years!

This is why we built EmpowerU. We knew there was a better way to deliver an evidence-based, high-quality, turnkey mental health supports at school — one that works for struggling students and the schools where they go each day.  

Not only does our team of licensed, master’s-level coaches help students learn healthy ways to increase motivation, persistence and success, but our scalable, responsive approach helps schools simplify the way they support a healthy student experience. Working together, we help more students, especially those in Tier 2, helping districts reduce spending on more costly intervention, including special education testing and instruction.

There is no doubt in my mind that we have an incredible opportunity right now to serve young people with an abundance of care in such a way that will fuel student transformation, helping them replace anxiety and depression with resilience and confidence. I want to applaud the school and community leaders already doing this work and invite others to join us in this effort. It will take a strong partnership to build sustainable and equitable systems that provide every student the help they need — starting with evidence-based support at school.

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Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT is co-founder of EmpowerU and an experienced licensed school counselor and therapist. A mother of seven grown children and a successful entrepreneur and author, Katie is a strategic thinker with an ability to connect and build functional and productive teams. Her passion for finding effective ways to help students and families with mental health obstacles has fueled her work for EmpowerU since 2015.



EmpowerU’s highly personalized, data-driven Tier 1 and Tier 2 solutions equip students to be resilient, self-directed learners and reach their goals — without additional hires or a heavy lift from schools. The program provides each student with interactive lessons and personalized coaching, pairing technology with brain research in a unique way that supports students, empowers their growth and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression. Multi-year data makes it clear: nobody understands Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and approaches student success the way EmpowerU does.

Topics: Tier 2 supports