Teachers and Ed Professionals Say They Are Unprepared to Deal with Mental Health Issues
At his administration’s National Conference on Mental Health, President Barack Obama challenged schools to help identify mental health disorders among their students. But surveys reveal that most teachers feel they lack the necessary skills to support the mental health needs of adolescents and teens. And budgets differ dramatically from school to school. Calling it a “crying need,” David Kopperud, a consultant to California’s State Department of Education says, “This is something school administrators and teachers run into frequently – depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues – and yet they are not trained to handle situations like these.”
The Blackboard Jungle
Most will agree that teaching adolescents and teens is a difficult, demanding job. Along with their regular classroom duties, teachers today also face the added challenges of navigating a growing rise in mental health disorders, and this is something many will admit they lack the proper training for. A 35-member Student Mental Health Policy Workgroup, formed in 2012, said in a released statement, “Research indicates that teachers feel they lack the training needed for supporting children’s mental health needs.” A study conducted by School Psychology Quarterly echoes this sentiment, pointing out that only 34 percent of teachers surveyed said they had the skills they needed to identify and find help for students with mental health needs. Unfortunately, many schools lack the funding to fix this situation.
Testing the System
“Given the budget cuts, schools now have to decide whether to hire an assistant principal, an instructional aide, a librarian or a social worker,” Pia Escudero, director of Los Angeles Unified School District’s School Mental Health Crisis Counseling Services, says. “The choices schools have to make really push mental health services to last place, almost like a luxury.” Julia Graham Lear, a founder of the George Washington University Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, agrees, saying, “The children’s mental health system is as fragile as the at-risk youth it is intended to serve.”
Should Teachers Go Back to School for Training in Mental Health: Teaching the Teachers
In a recent article in The Atlantic, writer, author, and teacher Jessica Lahey combines personal experience with research to show how teachers might get more help. She writes, “An increasing number of schools roll out evidence-based mental-health programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), teaching that promotes appropriate student behavior by proactively defining, teaching, and supporting positive student conduct, and Trauma-Sensitive Schools.” She says these programs provide strategies that can be highly effective, “But only if the teachers tasked with implementing them are sufficiently trained in the basics of mental-health interventions and treatment.”
Talking Out of the Turn
Unfortunately, these untrained teachers may be the first adults that troubled adolescents and teens feel that they can turn to. “Over the years, my students have entrusted me with their most harrowing moments: psychotic hallucinations, sexual molestation, physical abuse, substance abuse, HIV exposures, and all sorts of self-injurious behavior ranging from cutting to starvation to trichotillomania,” Lahey says in The Atlantic. “When students write about delicate and dangerous experiences, there are decisions to be made and judgments to be called. And yet, for much of my career, I have been horribly unprepared and have failed to secure the services my students needed as a result.”
Reading the Signs
The first step to solve the ‘crying need,’ says Kopperud, is to help teachers recognize the symptoms of a mental health disorder when they see one. As an example, Kopperud recounted an incident in which a school coach, frustrated with an extremely thin student, forced her to eat lunch. The student, who struggled with anorexia nervosa, later threw up in the bathroom and the coach had her suspended. “He had never heard of anorexia nervosa,” Kopperud says. “He thought she was being defiant.”
In 2011, in the state of California alone, children between the ages 5 to 19 were hospitalized for mental health issues more than 35,000 times. But according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, less than half of all students with mental health disorders are likely to receive any sort of treatment whatsoever. At President Obama’s mental health conference, 40 organizations, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, promised to provide training in recognizing mental health issues for teachers, administrators, staff, students and families.
In the meantime, the numbers continue to grow. “We see it all – clinical depression, panic disorder, eating disorders in both sexes, hallucinating that is auditory or visual, post-traumatic stress,” Susan Kitchell, a high school nurse in the San Francisco Unified School District, says. “Our biggest issue is capacity. We have 2,100 kids in our school and one full-time nurse, one full-time mental health counselor, two half-time counselors, and interns.”
Without enough mental healthcare professionals in place to deal with troubled youth, the burden is passed on to the teachers, Rusty Selix, executive director of the Mental Health Association in California, admitted to Ed Source, a California online network for education professionals. “There ought to be a system where teachers can tell someone, a counselor or a principal,” he says. “So the kids can get care – and we know that the care should be available on campus.”
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EdSource: New push for mental health training for teachers and principals, by Jane Meredeth Adams. Retrieved October 26, 2016.
The Atlantic: The Failing First Line of Defense, by Jessica Lahey. Retrieved October 26, 2016.
NPR: Why Don’t Teachers Get Training On Mental Health Disorders? by Katrina Schwartz. Retrieved October 26, 2016.