Primary Sources: Researchers Propose Key Role for Schools in Meeting Mental Health Needs of Homeless Students

A student shaking a school counselor's hand.

“Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Homeless Students in Schools: A Multi-Tiered System of Support Framework.” Michael L. Sulkowski and Kurt Michael. Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 44 (September 2014).

What it’s about: Michael L. Sulkowski of the University of Arizona and Kurt Michael of Appalachian State University argue that school systems provide an ideal place to address homeless young people’s mental health needs.

Why read it: Department of Education statistics indicate that the number of homeless children and youth attending U.S. public schools is growing. Young people who experience homelessness are at high risk for mental health problems like PTSD, anxiety and depression. But lack of transportation and health insurance and other barriers may keep them from getting the support they need. This article proposes a solution using resources already in place in schools.

Biggest takeaways for youth and family service professionals: Sulkowski and Michael argue that school district homeless liaisons and school mental health providers can collaborate to use a “Multi-Tiered System of Support” framework to address homeless young people’s mental health needs.

The three-tiered framework includes:

  • Universal interventions, which focus on all students at a school. They often involve steps to prevent problems and improve school climate.
  • Selective or targeted interventions, which go beyond universal intervention and are aimed at students with risks or problems that have a negative impact on their academic performance and behavior at school.
  • Indicated or intensive interventions, which are provided to students who do not respond well to universal or selective interventions and students who have complicated mental health needs. These services are more individualized and time-consuming.

While there is research supporting the overall effectiveness of the framework, little of the research has specifically targeted homeless youth, the authors say. But they contend that homeless youth will likely benefit from any efforts that succeed in helping them stay engaged in a therapeutic process.

They also write:

[H]omeless students may need assistance with getting their basic needs met, feeling safe and secure, and learning to trust others before they can address their mental health problems. Therefore, school-based mental health providers will need to work closely with homeless liaisons in their respective [local education agencies] who are charged with the task of ensuring that homeless students have access to stable housing arraignments, food and clothing, transportation to and from school, and community-based healthcare and mental health providers.

Additional references: Look for more articles on adolescent mental health and homeless education in NCFY’s research library.

You might also want to read about how well integrated employment and mental health services work for homeless youth and how mental health and housing services can help youth hold down a job.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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