Students across the country have stepped into their classrooms, filled with excitement to start a new year. In many cases, though, students also bring physical, social, and emotional concerns.

For some students, these concerns are normal back-to-school jitters that will not affect their schoolwork. For others, these worries profoundly detract from their ability to learn.

One in five children in the United States has a diagnosable mental health disorder, but only 21 percent of those children needing mental health services receive care.

Consider these comments from a parent of a young girl in south Georgia, where the poverty rate is high and high school graduation rates are low compared to the national average:

“She is continually talking about killing herself and she tells me that I don’t understand,” said the parent of a 12-year-old girl who has been seeing a therapist at a public middle school. “She tells me that ‘my therapist understands me and I can talk to her.’ She can see the school therapist whenever she needs to do so. This not only provides her the support that she needs to stay in school but it reassures me that whenever she has suicidal thoughts, help is nearby. The therapist has helped us find a group for family therapy and has met with us at home, too.”

This 12-year-old is not alone. According to school therapist Samantha Boatwright, self-harming behaviors and suicidal thoughts are just two of the concerns often shared with her by the youth and families that she supports in her position at a public middle school in south Georgia.

While some may argue the job of schools is to focus solely on academics, it is difficult to ignore the issues that may impair a child’s ability to focus, engage, and learn.

Children with emotional disturbance drop out of high school at high rates and have higher rates of absenteeism and suspension or expulsion than their peers. In addition, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in children’s mental health status and care still exist.

As director and researcher, respectively, at The Center of Excellence for Children’s Behavioral Health at Georgia State University, we have extensively studied these issues and examined potential ways to address them. We know this is a serious public health problem that affects the children involved, their families and society as a whole. We are supporting solutions by partnering with state agencies to promote optimal care for youth with behavioral health difficulties.