Schools cannot ignore the mental health disabilities of their students. Good mental health is critical to children’s success in school and life. Students who struggle with mental health benefit academically and socially when they receive support at school. When schools do not address mental health problems, the results can be costly: academic and behavior problems, dropping out, delinquency, and school violence.


The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that one in five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Under the IDEA, schools must determine whether the student with a mental health disorder is a student who has a disability and, as a result of that disability, needs special education in order to make progress in school. These students typically qualify for services under other health impairment or emotional disturbance.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a student who receives mental health counseling and assistance from a 1:1 paraprofessional is receiving special education services. LJ v. Pittsburg Unified School District (9th Cir. 2016) School districts should consider the impact of medication and outside incidences of psychiatric hospitalizations and suicide attempts. The court has held that it is hard to believe these types of incidences would not impact a student’s education. Id.

Specially Designed Instruction and Related Services

General education is what is provided to non-disabled students in the classroom. Special education is “specially designed instruction” to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. (34 CFR Section 300.39) Mental health services such as psychological, social work, and counseling services are all related services. Mental health services do not extend to diagnostic and evaluation purposes. (20 USC Section 1401)

The California Department of Education provides the following graphic representation of an IDEA-based continuum of potential service environments:

The most intensive placement for students with mental health challenges is a residential placement. If placement in a public or private residential program is necessary to provide special education and related services to a child with a disability, the program, including non-medical care and room and board, must be at no cost to the parents of the child. (34 CFR Section 300.104)

Educationally Related Mental Health Services

Educationally Related Mental Health Services (ERMHS) are mental health services that are provided to students who have significant emotional or behavior issues that impede their ability to benefit from their special education services. These students have already been found eligible for special education services. In order to receive ERMHS, there must be a direct relationship between the student’s emotional or behavioral conduct and the lack of benefit from special education. Services may include school, home, or community-based counseling. Counseling may be provided to the student and/or their family.


In is unavoidable that schools will be required to serve students whose mental health disabilities impact their ability to progress in their education. If a school suspects a student has a mental health disability that may be impacting their education, it is important to assess the student. Refusing to identify a student with mental health needs and failing to provide appropriate support may lead to bigger problems down the road for the student and/or school.


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