How School is Failing As an Aid to the Growing Youth Mental Health Epidemic
On January eleventh of my sophomore year, my friend and teammate hung himself during the sixth period. In the subsequent months, at least three of my friends attempted. Since these events, I’ve had many conversations with my friends about their various mental health issues and how the school has helped them. I found out that my school, like most across the US, are woefully underprepared for helping students with mental health issues. Most of my friends did not know about the meager resources available to them, and many of my friends have had discouraging interactions with teachers when it comes to mental health. Across the country, the issue of underprepared schools in the face of a growing adolescent mental health epidemic is becoming more and more dire. Teachers are not prepared to help struggling students in the way that they need it, and many aren’t aware of the resources (if any) at the school that can. Because adolescents spend so much of their time in school, and because school tends to be a stressor in many adolescents lives, schools need to be more prepared to deal with these issues.
In the US, 1 in five adolescents face a mental illness (Our Failing First Line of Defense). That means 20% of students face some sort of mental challenge, and that number is on the rise. Mental health issues can be very dangerous, as I witnessed last year. In fact, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in people ages 15–24 (National Alliance on Mental Illness). While suicide is the most extreme outcome of many mental health illness, it is not the only bad outcome–70% of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition and at least 20% live with a serious mental illness (Also of Interest.). Mental health issues are linked with higher dropout rates homelessness ( Our Failing First Line of Defense). These students make up 20% of our future– we cannot continue to allow them to fall through the cracks.
Students spend at least six and a half hours, five days a week in school. That’s at least 32 hours a week, however between clubs, sports and the need to stay after school or certain coursework, many students spend much more time there. This makes school one of the most influential parts of a student’s life. It also means it’s where students have the most exposure to adults, making it the best place to catch symptoms in struggling students.
The first line of defense here is obviously the teacher. However, in many big schools like mine, a teacher can see more than 160 students in a day. That makes it hard for them to know and recognize behavior changes in each of their students. However, even if they have the smaller class sizes and support they need, teachers today are completely without any training to catch these warning signs. According to Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Most teachers are not trained about mental health in their formal education and degree programs.” This means that while a mental health issue may be interfering with a student’s ability to learn and perform in a class, their teacher might be completely oblivious. It is not a teacher’s responsibility to counsel a student struggling with a disorder (diagnosed or not), but they should be trained to recognize symptoms and risk factors in order to give these students a fighting chance at succeeding in their class. Teacher’s must be more prepared for this as one of the adults a student might spend most of their time with.
Other resources at schools are school counselors and social workers. School counselors often have a less hands-on relationship with a student, usually only managing their school schedule, not really a “counselor”. Social workers, however, can have a much deeper role. They can act as a bridge between the school and the home if a student is displaying concerning characteristics or if a teacher reports being concerned. Often, their office can be a safe space to talk or rest. Unfortunately, the ratio of social workers to students seriously lacking: nationally it’s about one social worker to 250 students (Anderson). After my friend died, I remember my friend Angela Vang tweeting, alarmed, that our school had only one social worker for over two thousand kids. In the days after, the school brought in school counselors and social workers from schools all over the district to help with crisis management because my school was so overwhelmed. Currently, my high school employs two social workers, which makes a ratio of one social worker for a thousand students. My school, and the US as a whole has an enormous lack of resources for dealing with children’s mental health in schools.
Part of the reason there are so few resources and adults able to help kids in mental health crisis is because mental health issues have only recently been recognized and still carry significant stigmas. Nationwide conversation about mental health was fairly nonexistent up until recently, and it remains under a heavy cloud of stigma and misinformation. Awareness and education about mental health is much needed throughout the country but especially in schools, where students’ perception of mental health issues will be most influenced. Students need to be more aware of the struggles that affect their peers and that may very well be affecting them. They also need to feel comfortable enough in their environment in order to reach out for help and to start getting better. Schools need to be more open to talking about mental health and working with students who deal with them in a more understanding way.
One way my school helps kids with mental illnesses is a 504 plan. This is essentially an individualized plan that a student with a diagnosed mental illness creates during a meeting with a school administrator and a social worker. These plans can include things like the right to extra time for assignments, extra time on tests, the right to leave class without being followed, priority for late starts and other things. However many students (with diagnosed illnesses and without) are unaware that this is available to them, and many of my friends have reported teachers being hesitant to allow things on their 504 plans, or make it uncomfortable for them when they try to use it. A lot of it comes back to climate and stigma. It is incredibly difficult for a student to reach out and ask for help from adults that may not believe in their issues or who may think it is “too much special treatment” to allow them what is on their plan.
This side of the issue is worth exploring. Much of the stigma surrounding mental health issues has to do with the disbelief that they even exist or that they cause legitimate struggle. In many conversations with my friends, I’ve learned that they often feel as if they are being babied, or that teachers disapprove of giving “special treatment” for their mental health issues. However, nearly all medical professionals agree on their legitimate, scientifically proven causes and very real effects. Mental health issues also have clear repercussions, from things as severe as suicides, to higher rates of incarceration and unemployment (Our Failing First Line of Defense). The exceptions and concessions made for students with 504 plans (or some other equivalent) do not put these students at more of an advantage, they are not “freebie favors because someone feels bad”, these plans are designed to make sure these students are not held back by an illness out of their control. These are necessary aides to ensure students are all on the same level. Too often, care for mental health is seen as “coddling”, but a look at the rates of suicides in teens demonstrates how harsh the issue really is and how necessary it is that they are granted safe spaces, or at the very least an even playing ground.
Students across the country are barely getting by in a system that ignores the problems that affect them most. We cannot allow them to continue to merely survive until they no longer can. Schools need to step up to the plate and provide more support for students. The country needs to step up to the plate and provide more resources for schools. If not, we not only fail our children and our students, but we lose large swaths of talented and able individuals to some very curable problems.
“Also of Interest.” NCCP | Adolescent Mental Health in the United States. N.p., n.d. Web. 20
Nov. 2016. <http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_878.html>.
ANDERSON, MEG. “Mental Health In Schools: A Hidden Crisis Affecting Millions Of Students.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2016. <http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/31/464727159/mental-health-in-schools-a-hidden-crisis-affecting-millions-of-students>.
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“Our Failing First Line of Defense.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 23 Oct.
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Vang, Angela (@angvaj). “CENTRAL HAS 1 SOCIAL WORKER FOR 2000 KIDS
THAT’S CRAZY. ” 11 Jan. 2016, 7:26pm. Tweet.
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