The Importance of School-Based Mental Health Services

The conversation around children’s mental health needs has been growing for years. There have been great advancements in neuropsychological research and neuroimaging that have improved our understanding of how our experiences affect brain chemistry and development. We now understand that exposure to chronic environmental stressors (poverty, community violence, familial disruption and instability) and the effects of traumatic incidents, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), can alter a child’s brain development, hindering their ability to learn and their development of self-regulation and other important social skills.

There now is a general understanding that mental health issues and mental illnesses have their roots in childhood, during critical periods of growth, particularly in adolescence, when physical and physiological changes add to the chemistry of ongoing brain development.

Still, stigma and lack of recognition around mental health needs remains a barrier to people seeking help and treatment, not just for themselves, but for their children. There is shame and misunderstanding where there should be acceptance and support. Recognizing Mental Health Month each May gives us an opportunity to raise awareness, rethink the misperceptions around mental illness, and recognize the mental health needs that we all share. We have an opportunity to change the conversation about mental health and reduce stigma and discrimination.

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Infographic source: CDC

The statistics are well documented: mental illness affects millions of youth across America, with 1 out of 5 children and adolescents suffering from some form of mental illness. Examples include stress, anxiety, bullying, family problems, depression, a learning disability, and alcohol and substance abuse. We know that without some form of intervention, youth with untreated mental health issues are more likely to experience academic failure, become involved with the criminal justice system, abuse substances, or fall victim to suicide. In fact, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Early identification and treatment for mental illness works and can prevent these negative outcomes. Unfortunately, many children and youth do not receive the help they need. Among the 2.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 who reported a major depressive episode in the past year, nearly 60% did not receive any treatment. Most go untreated because they either cannot afford care, lack access, do not know anyone they can turn to for help, or are too embarrassed and ashamed to even ask for help. Clearly, investing in preventive mental health services could give these young people a chance for a better and healthy future.

It is imperative that we recognize the important role schools can play in addressing the mental health needs of our nation’s youth, reducing stigma, and facilitating better referral and access to needed mental health services.

Children often spend more waking hours among school employees than they spend with their family members. These school employees observe student behaviors in response to academic and social pressures in the school environment. Often these behaviors manifest themselves as “misbehaviors,” acting out, outbursts of anger, and what has typically been referred to as “willful defiance.”  But what really might be going on inside that student’s mind, outside of the classroom, and in their homes and communities? There is now clear scientific research supporting what educators have known all along – the environment surrounding where children live and the experiences they bring with them into the classroom greatly affect their learning once they enter the schoolhouse doors.

We can do better. Schools offer an ideal context for prevention, intervention, positive development, and regular communication between school and families. School health and student support services are critical components of a comprehensive approach to safe and successful schools. Can one teacher do it by him or herself? Absolutely not. It takes a village. It takes an organized community school effort to maximize the limited resources and coordinate school district, county, and state agencies to come together for collective impact and collaborative service delivery. Adequate staffing of specialized instructional support personnel (SISP), identification and proper referral for mental health and social services, and purposeful coordination with other family and child-serving entities should become the norm for our schools.

LINWOOD MIDDLE SCHOOLFortunately, we have come upon an era where federal education statute has opened the door for states and districts to design and collaborate on their own local accountability initiatives and priorities together. The newly authorized Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has granted SEAs and LEAs this flexibility according to some well-rounded parameters, including engagement of a cross-disciplinary team of education, community, and government stakeholders in plan development and implementation. States must also consider at least one indicator of school quality and student support, such as school climate and chronic absenteeism, in their measures of accountability. We have the opportunity to refocus our schools on the needs of the whole child and prioritize a positive and supportive school environment that fosters improved learning. The time to get involved is now.

Join the conversation to promote Mental Health Month and support increased mental health services in the schools. #MHM2016 #MentalHealthMatters #ESSAisOpportunity

Also, be sure to join NEA edCommunities for a webinar exploring Mental Illness and Its Alarming Effects on Children on Tuesday, May 17, 2016  from 6:00 PM EDT to 7:00 PM EDT. This webinar, facilitated by NEA edCommunities’ Suzie Gannett, will cover topics such as common mental health issues in students, suicide prevention, and the effects of bullying on mental health. Learn strategies for improving children’s mental health, the effects of social media, school violence and teen suicide prevention. Learn what solutions are offered by schools, and obtain resources including mental health screenings and the Medicaid free care rule. Hear how student learning is affected by mental health issues. All educators, ESP, SISP, parents, mental health professionals and community members are welcome.

Finally, check out our ABC Guide – Addressing Behavior Challenges!

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