A Growing Need: Mental Health Assets in Schools

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By Managing Editor Teri L. Hansen

Bill Cosby once said, “My father walked to school at 4 o’clock every morning with no shoes on, uphill, both ways, in five feet of snow and he was thankful.” It became a well-known quip to complaining kids everywhere. The thought has been that “back in the day” was harder for kids than it is now, but recent statistics may prove that to be a misconception.

According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five children experience mental health problems during school years. Any number of problems qualify like stress, anxiety, depression and family issues. These problems lead to dire consequences like bullying, alcohol and substance abuse, self-injurious behaviors, suicide and violent outbursts. The same study also concluded that 60% of students don’t receive treatment because of stigma and lack of services.

“Last year because we were seeing a definite increase in mental health needs in our buildings, our staff were provided Mental Health First Aid training, which was helpful, and we have counselors and teachers in all our buildings who care a great deal about our students and work hard to support them,” said Erica Shook. Shook is an English teacher at McPherson High School.

In 2013, the American Psychological Association conducted a study. The results showed that American teens are experiencing stress levels that are not only equal to but surpassing that of adults. The stressors for youth aren’t that different from that of adults. They too, worry about loved ones, money and their own successes and failures. However, compact what most would deem as positive or at the very least tolerable stress, kids can also suffer such issues as abuse, neglect, maltreatment and homeless situations. According to the Centers for Disease Control, positive and even tolerable stress elevates quickly in children to toxic stress. This becomes a hard situation to combat for the teachers on the front lines of education.

“While our counselors are fantastic, they are pulled in many different directions. We are seeing more and more students each year who need regular guidance support, but our guidance counselors are expected to cover a number of other responsibilities in buildings in addition to student mental health,” Shook said. “Also, classroom teachers are not always privy to issues students are facing that might help us better help students in our classes. Privacy laws prevent guidance counselors from sharing things with teachers. Unless parents or students let teachers know about these things, we are often left in the dark. This makes it more challenging for us to support students in our classrooms.”

According to the CDC 9.4% of children ages two through 17 (approximately 6.1 million) have received an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis. Another 7.4% (approximately 4.5 million) have a diagnosed behavior problem. About 7.1% (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety. And lastly 3.2% (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression. These numbers only represent the known cases, what about the estimated 60% who aren’t diagnosed or aren’t receiving treatment.

“It is impossible for students to learn when they are in crisis. Often, this shows up as behavior issues in class,” Shook said. “The reality, however, is that they often just need an opportunity to reset.”

Lack of treatment and help at an early age is leading to lasting consequences. A recent Harvard Health study showed that children under toxic stress levels can face long-term physical consequences. A myriad of health problems has been linked to childhood stress to include heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and obesity.

The National Association of School Psychologists research has shown that schools are the perfect place to provide youth with the mental health services that they so desperately need. Students tend to spend at least six hours per day in school. Also, studies show that students are more likely to seek counseling when services are available in schools. However, with teachers and staff already stretched thin, this is one more need that schools are struggling to meet.

“I don’t believe we are able to provide all of the support our students need at this time, but schools should be the ideal place for mental health support. Students are with us eight hours a day,” Shook said. “If we really want to look at redesigning schools in our district, let’s follow the lead of some other districts in the state who are providing greater community health opportunities for students and families in their schools.”

One such district is in Merriam and is available to Shawnee Mission School District students. Health Partnership Clinic added a new federally qualified, school-based health center within existing space in Merriam Park. It accepts KanCare/Medicaid, commercial insurance and uninsured patients with a sliding-fee discount program. The clinic specializes in pediatric-focused care to treat most health conditions that affect school-aged children. This initiative is helping in the third largest school district in the state.

“McPherson has a wealth of community resources available. Think about what a partnership like this could mean for our district families,” Shook said. “McPherson College has even provided a model for this with their new campus health center.”

Since the infamous Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012. An emphasis has been placed on the violence permeating schools. A steady increase has been seen in school-based violence in the past 10 years, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, with a sharp increase occurring in 2018. Another statistic showed that the most common age of the shooters was 17 years old, followed closely by 16 years old and in third place 15 years old. Though both 13- and 18-year-olds had a significant place in the data as well. With the information readily available; the knowledge is there, but how to combat this growing and frightening statistic has become the subject of much debate. The Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate analyzed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and concluded that a solution is in mental health support within the community and school. Among many such recommendations the report listed these:

  • Systems must facilitate and financially support universal screening for behavioral health and developmental impairments for children ages birth to 21. This is especially necessary within a pediatric primary care setting, with a financial reimbursement strategy to incentivize compliance with screening requirements.
  • Teachers, administrators, related service personnel, pediatricians, and parents need access to training and information concerning mental health issues as they arise during the developmental years and in the context of changing environmental expectations.
  • Schools should have support and greater flexibility to retain or import therapeutic and other related services (such as occupational therapy and behaviorist services) into the school setting, and funding and reimbursement mechanisms must be strengthened.

With so much facing teachers today, mental health in the classroom is adding to an already heavy workload. But as they tend to do, educators continue to take more responsibility upon their shoulders for the betterment of their students. By paying attention at home not only will parents be performing their own due diligence, but they will be assisting those molding their children’s minds and characters on a daily basis.

“Also, if parents know about anything going on with their children that might affect classroom behavior, let teachers know. With high school students, sometimes parents don’t know, and that’s when we all really have to work together,” Shook said. “We want the best for our students and want to help any way we can, but that is tough to do without a clear picture of what our students are dealing with.”

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