Let's Change How We View Mental Health In Schools

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On February 14th, America was stunned by the horrific school shooting in Parkland, FL, which resulted in 17 students, teachers, and staff killed and many wounded. We can talk about gun control until we are blue, however, there is another issue that is right in front of us. This type of atrocity could only be committed by someone who is very emotionally disconnected. This is proof that America’s school system is facing a widespread, yet silent, epidemic that is only getting worse with each passing day.  That epidemic is mental health disorders and is a problem that is affecting an alarming 20% of students, according to a CDC study in 2013. The disturbing part of that number is that over 80% of those affected do not get help. This should come as no surprise, however, since the training provided to teachers is very minimal, the resources are really stretched thin, and there are simply not enough mental health experts (i.e, counselors, psychologist, etc.) Also, it doesn’t help that a lot of the early signs of these issues are often seen as a “phase” or treated as misbehavior and punished for, possibly making the child feel worse.

Mental Health Disorders are just like any other illness and affects people in both similar yet different ways from a physical illness. Suffers often struggle to get through the day, just as people with physical ailments. However, mental health disorders do not have physical characteristics, rather they have symptoms of observable behavior changes and other signs. If a child is found with severe bruising, or any other physical ailments, no hesitation is made to assure that the child gets help. However, when these same children talk about mentally scarring thoughts that they have, nothing can be done.

When was the last time you asked your student if he or she was okay? Have you ever gotten concerned about a student’s mental state, but couldn’t act because you were not qualified to? Statistics show that over 20% of students show signs of mental health disorders, and 80% of that number do not get any form of help. Often times, kids are told, “It’s a phase” or “You’ll grow out of it”, but why can’t anyone be bothered enough to take the genuine concern to see if it’s something more? Mental health is not an adult-only issue, just as physical health isn’t. Mental health disorders don’t discriminate, as it takes a piece of people away from them. Whether you are eight years old or eighty years old, mental health is just as important as physical health.   

On the website NPR.ORG, the number of mental health professionals in relation to the number of students in their caseloads is explained and broken down. For example, Counsellors have a caseload of 500 students, which is more than double the amount the American School Counsellor Association (ASCA) recommends. Social workers have a 3000:1 caseload, which is significantly higher than the recommended 250 students as well. Following that same pattern, School psychologists are 1400:1 and the last line of help, school nurses are more than 750:1. All of these are far more than the recommended caseload from the ASCA.

However, it should be noted that these aren't the only people who can help. Teachers and families can also help students through the issues that may plague them. However, teachers have very minimal training in recognizing the signs of mental health disorders, and the family may not be able to see the signs of mental health disorders either. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. We could invest more in training teachers and families to see the signs and help get the students and parents involved in their mental wellness and have mental health taken more seriously.

Another issue with dealing with mental health is the limits put on teachers, for example, a teacher could get the school sued for assisting a student in finding info and resources for something they are concerned about. This is partially due to the idea that schools are overstepping their bounds, and parents that believe that it’s their job, not the schools. We can alleviate this stress by having a voluntary student information campaign, like the D.A.R.E. program. This could help open doors for dialog about mental health concerns between the school, the student, and the parents. We can also allocate resources to allow for a psychologist that is dedicated to these issues and can also share information with families on a more personal level.  

Mental wellness starts at the elementary school level. By teaching kids at a young age to talk about how they really feel, and what they have going on in their thoughts, it will become ingrained and it will give a more open environment. It will also help children remain open with their emotions as they get older. Students who seem to have signs of mental health disorders should have more intervention, whether the parents are notified, their given one on one time with the teacher, or a combination of both. This should take place in a non-hostile environment that the student is comfortable in. The teacher should also talk with his/her students about emotions and what they can do with them. An example of this would best be described by Fred Rogers’ (Mr. Rogers Neighborhood) song “The Mad That You Feel”, as the song talks about how kids should handle themselves when they are mad. This is a prime example of what teachers should do to help their students understand their emotions.

As people grow older, they develop character. A person who was encouraged to suppress themselves as a child will have a harder time coming out about their feelings. All students develop who they are every day, and we as a community should help students develop an openness about their thoughts and know they aren’t alone. We could have seminars or assemblies talking about Suicide Prevention And Crisis Education. Reaching out to parents and educate them on how to talk with their child about emotions and recognize the signs of mental health disorders is another good way to help a child develop. Whatever way works, the sooner we start changing these things, the better the student, parent, teacher, and community will be.

The process of mental health reform in schools will be a daunting and monumental task. There are a few issues that are not controlled by the school system. For example, Legislation will have to be passed in order for some changes to be made. However, we can’t just let this wait for legislation to pass, we need to come together, as a school system and a community and take action now.


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