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SAMSHA and CMHS Want to Address Children’s School Based Mental Health

August 17, 2019

Dennis Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, Scientific Advisor for the Children’s Mental Health Network, and a member of the CMHS Advisory Council. The Council is meeting in a few days and one of the agenda items focuses on school-based mental health. Dennis has questions that Network members can help answer. Read on!

Here is the charge I just received as a member of the CMHS Advisory Council:

“SAMSHA has an established interest in working with children. SAMHSA supports services and systems that curate social and emotional learning opportunities and address the needs of children with or at risk for Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED). The SAMHSA Mental Health Technical Assistance Training Center (MHTTC) has recently developed a series of activities that are designed to support these interests. We are interested in ideas from our National Advisory Council members on increasing access to school-based mental health services.”

These are issues I know a lot about from so many perspectives. I am especially curious to know what is happening to families dealing with school-based mental health for their children. As well, I am interested to hear from educational leaders and clinicians working in schools on these issues.

What are the trends you are seeing? What is working or not working? Yes, I know families and educators want services and money for those services, but so many things are expensive, impractical, and often not effective. So, what have you seen work, rapidly reducing mental-health problems in schools?

This mental-health problem among our kids is not small, based on so many studies, including these examples:

  • Almost two-thirds of America’s children 0-18 had a script for psychotropic medications, according to an incredible survey by the Wall Street Journal (Mathews, 2010).
  • Cost for mental health services for children is Medicaid’s most significant single expense for American’s 0-18, rising more than $1 billion per year (Anita Soni, 2009; Anita Soni, 2014).
  • Children in the Opiate epidemic are particularly harmed, and widespread in places like West Virginia and Ohio, where we have large prevention projects.

As a prevention scientist, child and family psychologist, and a family member (my mother, father, and brother had a whole host of these problems), I won’t settle for nice-sounding words to turn around the epidemic. We need effective and proven strategies that can be scaled rapidly across the country with measurable effects and benefits. Thoughts and prayers are not enough, opportunities are not enough, and libraries of resources with helpful government contractors are not enough. America used to mobilize science and medicine scourge these epidemics, and the invention of the polio vaccines (Salk and Sabine versions) ended a nightmare of fear for my generation growing up in the 1950s.

Few readers and policymakers know that there is solid existing, replicated, cost-effective science that can be scaled to address both the root causes and the immediate crises causing Serious Emotional Disturbances (SED) among children, their families, classrooms, and communities. I have a practical, scientifically proven list (check out PubMed and PsycINFO), and I hope the faithful readers of the Children’s Mental Health Network will share theirs with me. I can guarantee none of the effective strategies are about the awareness of the problem, curriculum, yet another drug cocktail advertised on TV, or thoughts and prayer. And just for the record, I taught Sunday School to teens for 12 years.

And just throwing more money at it won’t cause the change our children, families, and communities need for peace, productivity, health, and happiness. We are in a very tough situation, a bit like the guy stuck on Mars movie when everything went South. We have to science the (blankety blank) out of this, just like we did to end the polio epidemic.

Who is in to help? Share your comments and ideas at the bottom of this page.

Mathews, A. W. (2010, December 28). So Young and So Many Pills: More than 25% of Kids and Teens in the U.S. Take Prescriptions on a Regular Basis. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Soni, A. (2009). The Five Most Costly Children's Conditions, 2006: Estimates for the U.S. Civilian Non-institutionalized Children, Ages 0-17. (MEPS Statistical Brief #242). Rockville, MD. 20850: Agency for Health Care Research and Quality Retrieved from

Soni, A. (2014). The Five Most Costly Children's Conditions, 2011: Estimates for U.S. Civilian Non-institutionalized Children, Ages 0-17. (434). Washington, DC: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Retrieved from

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About the Author

Dennis Embry

Dennis Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson and co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. Dr. Embry serves as a National Advisory Council member and Chief Science Advisor to the Children’s Mental Health Network. His work and that of colleagues is cited in 2009 the Institute of Medicine Report on The Prevention of Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People. Clinically his work has focused on children and adults with serious mental illnesses. In March 2014, his work and the work of several signatories was featured in a Prime-TV special on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation on the prevention of mental illnesses among children—which have become epidemic in North America.

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