Mental Illness in Our Schools: A National Crisis

Of the 55 million students who attend U.S. schools, 46 percent will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. And one in five of our young people live with a mental health condition, but less than half receive treatment.

These are staggering statistics that speak volumes about an epidemic facing our school children, especially in light of the sharp rise in youth suicide in our communities. In my district, the increase in emotional outbursts and incidents of students acting out is on the rise, and we are far from alone. As a mother of a teenage daughter with an incidence of suicide in my family, I feel we are compelled to do more to develop lasting, deep-seated mental health supports for our students.

Here’s how it boils down: When considering National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15 have had a diagnosable mental disorder within the previous year, 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 have a severe mental disorder, and 46 percent will experience some form of mental health disorder in their lifetime, this means that there are more than 10 million students, by conservative estimates, who are in need of mental health support and intervention in a system without the capacity to deliver these services.

This is enough cause for alarm that in July 2018, a new law took effect in New York State mandating mental health as part of health education in schools. New York is the first state in the country to put mental health on par with physical education. Some question whether this is a band-aid approach, as it doesn’t delve into the clinical aspects of what to do once children start to address their mental health issues, but what is clear is that something more is needed and schools need to bolster their programming to address ways for students to deal with this heightened awareness.

NAMI says that “Schools provide a unique opportunity to identify and treat mental health conditions by serving students where they already are.” NAMI further states that school-based mental health services are vital to providing support and resources for young people who might otherwise feel overwhelmed and isolated if they or a loved one are facing a mental health crisis.

A district making a difference

Hoosick Falls is a rural, high-poverty school district in New York’s Rensselaer County that has been tackling the issue for the past seven years. The district is currently using “Holistic Student Assessments” supplied by the Massachusetts-based PEAR Institute (Partnerships in Education and Resilience). The nonprofit partners in this effort with McLean Hospital, a Harvard University affiliate.

As a result of the students’ self-reporting on the assessments, PEAR groups them into three tiers: Tier 1; students who do not require intervention, Tier 2; students who are identified as “subclinical” with emerging issues and Tier 3; students who are identified as having clinical depression and in need of immediate help.

Students in Tier 3 are immediately referred to counselors, and students in all tiers are assigned to participate in specific activities depending on their identified needs, such as mindful reflection every afternoon, group meetings with adult advisors in a “Restorative Homeroom,” and/or equine-assisted learning.

The results are encouraging. The district has seen 34 percent less crisis intervention calls, which often involve students having emotional meltdowns, and a 56 percent reduction in disciplinary referrals among at-risk high school students.

The investment in this programming however, comes with a hefty price tag: Hoosick Falls expects to spend $190,000 on social-emotional development this school year. But districts can work with nonprofits to take over some of the costs. For example, Hoosick Falls expects its equine program will soon be taken over by a newly established nonprofit.

Striking a balance

With this new emphasis on mental health, some question the balance between physical education and its role in maintaining healthy stress levels and worry that it’s being phased out of the curriculum.

The worries seem well-founded, as a 2016-17 school year audit conducted by New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli showed that among 10 schools surveyed, there was at least some shortfall in the weekly amount of physical education time that students were getting.

Striking the right balance between ensuring that our children receive quality mental health supports that include both psychological and physical components will be critical in solving this national crisis and setting our youth on a good path forward.   

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