14 Ways #8: Yes to Mental Health Services in Schools, But Don't Stop There
This post first appeared on my original blog March 28, 2017.
I'm proud that our district has made the mental health of our students a top strategic priority. That priority stemmed from the summit held in 2016, and the specifics of our district's plan were part of the strategic plan mailed to every house in the village.
The relevant section is pasted below:
At the recent progress report on the summit goals, participants heard about the district's exploration of embedded mental health services at Shorewood High School, which I fully support. I think an on-site counselor, social worker or psychologist should be available to every kid in our district, and I think in the high school there should be a higher level of services.
Mental illness often begins to display in adolescence -- higher levels of stress can push otherwise healthy kids into crisis, every teenager is dealing with the emergence of a new identity as an adult, and of course self-medicating with drugs an alcohol becomes common in teens who are struggling with a range of challenges. Put simply, high school is a rough time. We should beef up the resources available to our high school students to help them meet those realities.
I support funding support services in part because of my own experiences. A school counselor helped me recover from crisis as a teen when depression hit me full force for the first time (thanks, Mr. Hays). I also ended up seeing a therapist outside of school for a while, and it would have been hugely helpful to have his office nearby so that my parents didn't have to pick me up and drive me to see him. I want every student in our schools to have a trusted professional-- hopefully more than one -- to turn to in crisis like I did.
However, I don't think on-site mental health services at one of our four schools are going to be enough if we are serious about educating and serving the "whole child." We must support students' mental health before high school. Early intervention is always best. Mental illness does show up during adolescence, but there are also very often warning signs long before then. We need to act early to equip kids with tools they need to manage stress and build emotional intelligence (like Mindfulness, which I was sorry to see lose funding in our district a few years ago). We need to teach character, and build resiliency, grit, and self-awareness early on so that by the time they get to high school, those who face big challenges -- and there will always be some -- are ready. We don't want high school to be the first time we offer concrete support services in support of their mental health.
If we are serious about preventing suicide, about protecting kids from substance abuse, now is the time to evaluate and be ready to invest in the social services we offer our students. I would expect we'd find that our counselors are serving far too many students, and though they do all they can, they are spread too thin. The same goes for hiring aides serving children with behavioral disabilities, and social workers who can help families cope with the problems outside of school that can interfere with learning and mental health.
We may look at the staffing level and still have to make hard decisions between funding instruction or mental health or social services. At that point, I would hope our community would let us know where they feel the balance is best struck, or if they are willing to sacrifice other things to fund student mental health services across the district. If we are serious about "Support for the Whole Child," we will have to fund that support. Looking back on my own experience, when severe depression could have left me sidelined for much longer than it did, I want every student to have the kinds of helping hands I did.
I want every kid to leave school ready for college and career not only prepared academically, but ready to meet life's challenges with determination, self-confidence and joy.
p.s. here is some further reading from npr that looks at the national challenge around childhood mental illness, and the challenges teachers face in spotting mental illness and finding appropriate services for their students (on top of their other 1 million roles as teachers). I look forward to reading about what services you think Shorewood can and should fund and if there are creative ways we can support the "whole child."