Is Mental Health the Next Focus of the School Safety Debate?

A recent Duke University study involving more than 10,000 American teenagers revealed that more than half of adolescents with psychiatric disorders go untreated. For those who do receive treatment, schools are the most likely source. That’s good and bad news. While schools play a vitally important role, budget cuts – and misplaced priorities – have been undermining their ability to provide these services.

“It’s still the case in this country that people don’t take psychiatric conditions as seriously as they should,” said Jane Costello, associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “This, despite the fact that these conditions are linked to a whole host of other problems.”

U.S. schools have by default become the mental health system for the nation’s children, a role that was magnified in the wake of the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT. Trained and licensed counselors, however, are not the regular presence at schools they used to be. Mental health professionals are rotated among schools, if available at all.

The National Education Association supports a comprehensive approach to making schools safer that includes addressing mental-health needs. “We must dramatically expand our investment in mental health services,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Proper diagnosis can and often starts in our schools, yet we continue to cut funding for school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists.”

After Sandy Hook, national interest in improving student mental health services spiked and was a key element of the Obama administration’s comprehensive plan to reduce school violence. The president’s proposal included $150 million for school-based resource officers and mental-health professionals, $50 million for training new social workers, and $15 million in new funding to train teachers in “mental-health first aid.” Congress has yet to approve funding for these initiatives and the issue was quickly overshadowed by the bruising legislative battle over gun control.

Even though the White House has continued to spotlight the issue, (Last week Vice-President Joe Biden announced that the administration is promising $100 million to improve mental health services), federal action on mental health has stagnated.

“We Tend to be a Reactive Country”

Many schools responded swiftly to the Sandy Hook tragedy by bolstering school security on a number of fronts – from a greater police presence to more sophisticated surveillance technology to even bulletproof whiteboards. What has been missing in most communities has been a commitment to preventive measures that could actually address the behavior that could metastasize into violent action.

Responding to a slew of new enforcement-based policies in New York schools, Amanda Nickerson, an expert on school crisis prevention and intervention at the University at Buffalo, said school districts have an obligation to take a more expansive view of what improves school safety.

“I’m always astounded as we are cutting mental health staff and social workers and school psychologists and others, and then we’re going to spend money on hard-wired security,” Nickerson told The Buffalo News. “I’m not saying that those things aren’t important, but at the end of the day, if we look at the thwarted school shootings, that’s almost always that somebody identified that there was a threat that was made, and they got the help that was needed.”

“We tend to be a reactive country,” says Dr. Sharon H. Stephan, co-director of the Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland. “So a lot of these measures reflect that. Clearly, we need a system of supports in our schools and communities that stress prevention.”

Stephan is seeing encouraging signs at the state level. “The importance of mental health is obviously a much more bipartisan issue than gun control. There’s more cooperation between political parties, despite the struggle over budgets. I would say that the movement is quite promising.”

Schools Can’t Do it Alone

According to the 2013 State Legislation Report issued by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an improved economy allowed state legislatures to at least begin rebuilding mental health budgets that were decimated by the recession. Several states passed laws legislation aimed at ensuring adequate access to care, and improving early intervention, school-based services and staff training.

Stephan says the most effective programs create partnerships between schools and community organizations that can facilitate connections and provide a continuum of preventative care services. Resources and expertise are pooled, making it easier to recognize when someone is troubled and requires help.

Schools are a critical part of this equation, Stephan explains, because they provide a less-threatening environment for the student and there’s a level of trust between staff and families that doesn’t necessarily exist with other providers.

“We’ve seen that teenagers will not seek out the help they need without the school playing a key role in the process. They’re engaged in the school at some level, and when they’re engaged they can get better.”

“But, overall, helping students access treatment is a shared responsibility in every community. Schools can’t do it alone.”