By Kayt Sukel
The vast majority of mental illnesses—including issues like depression, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorder—manifest themselves in early adolescence. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), 20 percent of children age 13-18 years suffer from a mental health condition. Those are the same years those children are likely to be in school and spending the bulk of their day with teachers, aides and fellow students.
With the right support in place, these students might blend in with the rest of the crowd, making the most of educational opportunities in order to reach their full academic potential. Yet, most students who may be dealing with a mental health condition are likely not receiving any treatment. Studies from the National Institute of Mental Health estimate more than 60 percent are not receiving services or treatment from medical or psychological service providers.
One might think, given the amount of time that these students spend at school each day, the public school system might be able to pick up some of the slack. But as National Public Radio (NPR) recently reported in a comprehensive new investigative series, most schools don’t just lack educational resources, they also lack the extra resources required to effectively deal with mental health issues.
Teachers, aides, school nurses, school psychologists and other educational professionals spend a lot of time with students. That time is a potential opportunity. Educators could be one key way to identify children who are at risk for different conditions—and get them the help they need. But, for one, those working in the educational field are often already understaffed and overworked. Frequently, a school nurse or school psychologist may be responsible for hundreds, if not thousands of students. And, two, teachers and other staff lack the critical training to appropriately identify a true mental health condition from a children who may just be experiencing a period of stress or sadness.
In an ideal world, all school staff would work together to provide a safe, nurturing, and stigma-free environment for all students. Teachers and other staff who interact with students the most would receive extra training to help identify at-risk individuals—and then direct them to the school nurse or psychologist for a referral to treatment. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services just earmarked nearly $50 million in grants to help make that ideal world more of a reality.
Additional training would assist school staff, from the classroom to the cafeteria, to understand the realities of mental health conditions—and help reduce stigma across the school. One in five children will suffer from a mental health condition. But with the right mindset and investments, it is possible for families, clinicians and schools to work together to make sure at-risk children are getting the care they need.