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.”

  • C. L. Boyd

    It seems natural to me that existing community agencies that provide mental health services to school-aged children and youth provide outreach and serve them in the schools during or immediately after the school day rather than in separate offices. Schools need to provide adequate spaces for mental health counseling to occur both individually and in groups and facilitate the required security clearances for those providing the counseling or therapy. If the school day is too full to accommodate providing these services, then extend the school day to allow for such services to happen on site at the school after school hours rather than requiring parents to make separate appointments and transport their children and adolescents to a different place. This was the model of service delivery used in the western PA communities where I worked as a school psychologist back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it worked well. Also it allowed for collaboration between parents, school personnel, and the mental health services provider.

  • Angela Tucker-Holmes

    I agree that we need to bring awareness to Mental Health. I work at a school where my student have this type of illness. More need to be done to help these students. Teachers and staff are burned out. Staff do not get any compensation for working in a school like this. They get abuse verbal and physical abuse everyday . But they still come to work and try to help these students. Some parents close their eyes to what’s really going on . Students come from broken homes and some are place in group homes and foster care. All types of abuse has been fine to these students. We need to find a better way in helping these students.

  • Yes it may be the next focus soon. I am thinking to share this to all school owners of my city so they will know the importance of it.

  • MHP

    And who is going to pay for the mental health professionals in school after the school day. Mental health services are already over-extended in mental health clinics – so who will go into the schools where there will be more red tape (i.e. families who refuse to have their children seen in the school because of the stigma, consent forms, releases, etc) when they could sit in their offices and have patients come to them; the patients who actually want to seek help and are willing to go the extra step to come to a clinic. Schools AND mental health services are stretched thin… there is no easy answer here. And where is parent responsibility in all of this???

  • I am very proud to live in a city where we have put mental and behavioral wellness as a priority! Johnson City, TN, held on to their SS/HS past the life of the grant. We have a wonderful partnership in our community between the school system, police department, and the juvenile court. We have master’s level therapists and case managers in the schools as well as SROs. We want to support and partner with parents to raise emotionally steady children. We will be happy to show others what we have learned along the way!

  • Responding to our frind with issues with the cost, we should pay for it with taxes! There, I said it! It would be a huge step towards being proactive to pay for such necessary services rather than wait until our grandchildren are attacked with the automatic rifles. Is sad to see people still questioning the finances rather than looking for solutions to an obvious problem. If parents were all responsible we would not need police, either. We need to look at viable solutions and not live in a fantasy world where we expect everyone to have taught the same responsibilities that we would hope we have instilled in our own children. It’s time for some of us Republicans to speak up – these issues are, indeed, public issues and not private ones, the latter only should be addressed personally. That argument grows quite old. Our party would be in much better shape if we stepped up to this responsibilities common to our fellow man when necessary

  • Peggy Armijo

    NEA President Dennis Van Roekel quotes “Proper diagnosis can and often starts in our schools, yet we continue to cut funding for school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists.” Teachers are often the first person a student will confide in regarding their own or another student’s issues. Most teachers aren’t trained in mental health and need to refer these kids to the school’s counselor. However, school counselors are, ideally, to have a caseload of 225 students…the reality is often 500 or more per counselor. Counselors have a master’s degree in mental health and, yet, the school system(s) often want them to use their expertise creating schedules, making schedule changes and pushing papers. If counselors were truly meeting the needs of the their students, their mental health issues would be addressed or referred to the appropriate party and…guess what…ultimately students’ academic performance would improve! Make school counselors a priority and allow them to do what know…so prevention rather than reaction is the school systems’ priority!

  • Terri See

    How can you say where is the responsibility of the parent?? I am a parent of a mentally ill child and I’m not trained to properly counsel my child, the experts are! The public needs to open their eyes and do something with this epidemic of cuts to the mentally ill. It is an illness just like any other but seems to always be the first to receive cuts. We need to be proactive and provide children the help that they may need early in life instead of waiting until a tragedy happens. Obviously, the person who thinks that parents can handle mentally ill children on their own has no idea what mental illness does to a person!! I think that the public should have more education about mental illness maybe people would not be so fast to judge. People do not decide that they want to be mentally ill! We need to break the stigma of mental illness and do something about it.

  • Adelaide Lewid

    As a counselor with 500 students, having quick access for mental health services and perhaps even an assessment counselor in our school from mental health once a month would greatly improve the chances of students getting services. Families call mental health and have to travel 30 minutes after 2 weeks of waiting to just get to the assessment. Then services take additional weeks for counseling and months for psychiatric services. The average wait time for a psychiatrist appointment is 3 to 4 months. Family practitioners are reluctant to prescribe medications for children with mental health diagnoses. They refer the parents to the school to have a psychological assessment done which is NOT a venue for making a diagnosis. We then have to explain to parents that ADHD is a medical diagnosis or depression or other and they either are faced with waiting for a psychiatrist appointment or paying for a psychological assessment out of pocket. I work for a wealthy county, this is inexcusable.

  • Laura

    All the above comments make important contributions to the current discussion. I have two additional comments: Although I have seen effective help with in-house mental health counselors, part of good mental health services is serving the family. Think of this: if any student got only 45 minutes of reading instruction a week, how quickly would he/she learn to read? Sometimes part of effective counselling requires getting the family on board. And an assessment may indicate need for medication, which means, hopefully, one of those rare child psychiatrists, not just a pediatrician. Lastly, NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) offers a short program introducing teachers to mental illness. It is not always available in all areas, because the training involves volunteers. They also offer programs (educational and support) for parents or other caregivers of students with mental illness.

  • Kaiakea

    We in Hawaii have already had a class action suit focused on the mental health of our population of students with Special Needs. This culminated in the Felix Consent Decree which mandated that state agencies work together to beef up services. Unfortunately, 20 years after the suit, things are pretty much back to where they were. Another class action is coming in Hawaii very soon. It makes sense that if other educational agencies can take lessons from what has happened in hawaii, then maybe expensive litigation will not be necessary. Let’s work together to make it happen.

  • I, a middle school counselor, recently sat with a distraught boy. He stated he was being bullied. We assured he and his mother were offered counseling services. Those services probably included “coping skills.” The message, then, was, “‘man up;’ there’s nothing to be done about the cruelty that festers within our school, so it’s your responsibility to stay safe.”

    Here’s the thing: maybe he would not have needed mental health services if we had truly done what we adults in schools say we do in schools: keep children physically and emotionally safe. They’re not. So, maybe, just maybe, a socially awkward and shy, but emotionally healthy boy entering the school day after day and being cruelly treated is the problem. Maybe we adults who are not effectively addressing bullying behaviors in our schools are the problem. Maybe the lack of real effort–real programs like the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program–to create positive school climates (oh, that takes real commitment, but man, oh, man it works!) is the root of this “big-bad-boy-beast” of children’s vulnerabilities.

    The bullying children and their on lookers who laughed and filmed his torment were brought into the office and given a verbal warning. Not much happened around their…insensitivity at best and outright abuse at worst because there’s a move on to keep children in schools no matter what.

    We adults documented the heck out of that incident. Lots of codes went into our records.

    We’ll be able to pull out that documentation the next time this boy is tormented. We’ll be able to show that “we did everything we could….”

    And he will be left to “man up.”

  • It appears that all students in my District are now entitled to the services that, at one time, were available to only those students who had IEPs. That is a reasonable expectation if the funding is available to increase the number mental health professionals necessary to to provide these services. Teachers with 30 to 35 students 6 times per day cannot be expected to provide mental health services and to also prepare their students for the state assessments that are held in such high esteem by the administrators who are evaluating them for the state officials who are mandating student performance outcomes.