Creating A Wellness-Informed Community: Strategic Use of ESSER Funds

Donna Volpitta, Ed.D.
5 min readAug 13, 2021


A recent headline in Chalkbeat screamed to me: As schools hire teachers and counselors, a funding cliff looms. The unprecedented federal coronavirus relief money is hitting the education sector. Still, the question remains about the best allocation of those funds. Given that the funds can only be used over the next three years, the article warned that those solutions need to focus on investing in long-term solutions.

I wholeheartedly agree. Hiring significant numbers of new staff, if there are even any available to hire, is a short-term solution. It may earn kudos this year but ultimately undermine the ability of schools to address this crisis.

Mental wellness is not a one-off. It requires comprehensive, ongoing programming and conversations. There are many pieces to the wellness-informed puzzle, and putting that puzzle together is out of the wheelhouse of many school administrators and staff.

Mental health legislation for schools is evolving rapidly, led by organizations like The Kennedy Forum, Inseparable, Mental Health America, and Chad’s Legacy Project. It is important for school leaders to understand the landscape in order to invest ESSER funds in effective longer-term solutions. I put together this blog to offer some guidance and highlight some innovative work being done in the field.

Keys to a Comprehensive School Mental Health, Hopeful Futures Campaign, Inseparable


As educators, we are often data-driven. We need to evaluate student knowledge before we can devise an appropriate teaching plan. The same holds true regarding mental wellness. By integrating screening tools into our community, we can take the temperature of our society, which helps guide our planning for both students and staff. Connected Mind is an affordable, fantastic resource for schools. Connected Mind uses an automated intelligent branching logic engine to deliver a personalized mental health screening based on an individual’s responses. They then offer aggregated anonymized population mental health reports and work with administrators to roll out initiatives customized for the specific needs of their student body.

Mental Wellness Education Programs

There are several different facets of wellness education to address, including Social Emotional Learning, Mental Health Literacy, Health Decision-Making Programs (Substance Use Prevention, Suicide Prevention, Healthy Media/ Technology Use, etc).

According to CASEL, Social Emotional Learning “is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” Many Social-Emotional Learning programs address these goals, and CASEL has worked hard to provide a resource for administrators to compare programs.

Mental Health Literacy programs are designed to help people understand how to obtain and maintain positive mental health; understand mental health problems and their treatments; decrease stigma related to mental health problems, and enhance help-seeking efficacy (Mental Health Foundation). In response to COVID, many SEL programs have added some components to address mental health. However, it is essential to understand that mental health literacy programs should address all four components. Like math and science, SEL and MHL are complimentary, but they are not the same. There is also a difference between programs focused on wellness education and those focused on the management of mental health problems, such as Mental Health First Aid. To identify programs that comprehensively address Mental Health Literacy concepts, Chad’s Legacy Project is launching a resource website with information about available programming.

Healthy Decision-Making Programs typically become much more specialized. They focus on a particular topic, such as substance use, bullying, or technology use (general decision-making is typically covered in SEL). Many of these programs are geared towards middle and high-school students because they address topics more appropriate for that age group.

As a Mental Wellness program, Pathways to Empower addresses SEL benchmarks, Mental Health Literacy components, and provides a foundation for understanding Healthy Decision-Making. It is particularly important to have brain-based mental wellness programming that teaches a common language to all community members, including young students and parents/caregivers. However, we believe we are just one piece of the puzzle. We suggest that schools integrate SEL programming designed to reinforce concepts. This is why we particularly like Mind-Up for younger grades and Robin, which adds a robust coaching aspect in middle and high schools.

Community Events

Wellness Community Events serve to stimulate meaningful conversations. Often, these programs center around narratives that touch on emotions. Unfortunately, these events are often presented without context, which is only inspirational in the short term. Combined with quality wellness education, however, they can be a powerful drive for transformation. Community events also offer opportunities to invite parents and caregivers to the conversation. We particularly love the resilience focus of One Revolution for all ages. For younger grades, movies like Chasing Childhood, Bully, and The Race to Nowhere are great ways to start conversations about healthy parenting. Connecting the Dots takes on the complex subject of adolescent mental health in a powerful way for middle and high school students. Additionally, Of Substance makes issues of substance use and abuse accessible, informative, and creative.

Peer Support

Often, in our mental wellness programming, we encourage young people to seek help. Depending on where they are in their brain development, adolescents are likely to seek help from their peers. This is why peer support groups like Active Minds are so important. However, the vital thing to remember when we add peer support groups is that it is not enough for peers to listen. We need to give them the tools to understand what is happening, the language to communicate effectively, and the decision-making strategies to handle situations.

Reinforcement & Resource Tools

Much of the innovative work being done in the field of Mental Wellness education is centered around applications and web-based resources. Many of these resources are cost-effective and reinforce concepts taught in Mental Wellness Education Programs.


Everyone seems to be familiar with meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm, but meditation alone will not solve our problems. Some apps focus on the mental health space and can be an excellent resource for wellness-informed communities. Our favorite two apps that comprehensively address resilience and mental health are SuperBetter and Diall. Superbetter uses concepts from video game design to help people reframe real-life challenges so they can handle them in a more resilient way. Diall fills gaps in areas where mental health providers are scarce through a mobile application that proactively educates and empowers students while eliminating the stigma of seeking help. Other apps offer more specified activities. OurHerd enables users to share their mental health stories, and Shadows Edge uses art as a medium to change a virtual world.

As you can imagine, this is by no means a comprehensive list of everything available. Mental wellness is an industry that is just beginning to see innovation. It will take a little while for administrators to feel confident as they navigate these new waters, but it is necessary to remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To build wellness-informed communities, we need to implement comprehensive, proactive solutions.



Donna Volpitta, Ed.D.

I make the brain science of building #resilience and fostering #mentalwellness easy to understand and apply.