Are We Really Doing the Best We Can for Mental Health in Schools?

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How many times have you come across a news article or video on social media depicting the death of an adolescent who has committed suicide? One in five adolescents have a diagnosable emotional, behavioral or mental health disorder, according to the Association for Children’s Mental Health. According to studies found in the National institute of Mental Health, approximately three million teens suffered a depressive episode in 2014. The lack of professionally trained personnel for mental health disorders in public schools can negatively impact a child’s education and relationships and can lead to suicide attempts. Public school districts should be able to provide the necessary resources such as accessibility to trained psychiatrists for students with mental health disorders.

Mental health can affect a teen’s daily activities, such as their education. According to the Association for Children’s Mental Health, adolescents who suffer from severe mental health challenges find it difficult to go about their daily lives at home, school and in their community. In many cases, children become stressed as a result of their environment or become anxious about upcoming assignments and tests that make it very difficult to focus in their classes.

Unfortunately, not every child’s needs are met because staff have to divide their attention among hundreds or thousands of other students from the school. In fact, according to data from the National Public Radio, there are on average 491 students per counselor, 1,151 students per nurse, and 1,400 students per psychologist in public schools. Thus, when kids do not receive appropriate services to support their mental health needs in school, they end up skipping their classes or dropping out of school altogether, as mentioned by the Association for Children’s Mental Health. With this said, it is necessary for school districts to provide trained mental health specialists that can work with the students in order to ensure their academic success.
A child with mental health often struggles with building healthy relationships. It is very common for children to experience low self-esteem and have issues with social skills, therefore making it difficult for them to make friends at school. This is where we see kids being bullied at schools. According to the Association for Psychological Science, there is also stigma associated to children with mental health disorders such as being dangerous and unpredictable which causes the “why try” effect. If the kids with mental health disorders don’t believe they will ever get better, they think why try making friends? Because the majority of a child’s day is spent at school, it is essential to make it a safe learning environment for children with mental health disorders. This can include implementation of mental health awareness in the current curriculum and promoting things like daily goals, being able to take breaks when necessary, and asserting a random act of kindness with peers or staff. Therefore, providing trained personnel to assist them with relationship-building activities is vital for building healthy relationships.

In severe cases, mental health becomes overwhelming to the child so much so that they resort to suicide attempt. Suicide is the second leading cause of death of young persons aged five to 24 years as stated by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A mental health disorder such as depression, on top of a tragic or stressful event, can trigger a child to attempt suicide. However, with a proper support system, suicide can be prevented. Even by simply being on the lookout for symptoms of depression or other mental health disorders and sharing it with the school nurse or counselor can do a lot for suicide prevention as stated by several studies. Yet school nurses and counselors could only do so much to assist in these situations. Therefore, it is essential that public school districts prioritize funding for trained professionals such as a psychiatrist so that children who suffer from more severe mental health issues can learn coping strategies that can help prevent suicide attempts.

When a public school does not have professionally trained mental health staff available, it can negatively affect the lives of their students such as their education and relationships, which can sometimes lead to suicide attempt. Many educators such as teachers, counselors and nurses may not feel comfortable talking about suicide and are not really prepared for a case in which a student expresses suicide ideation. It is not their fault, however, because they were not extensively trained for that. For this reason, it is crucial for every public-school district to allocate enough funds for access to professionally trained mental health personnel such as psychiatrists or other resources needed in order to help children with mental health disorders succeed in their schools.

Maritza E. Maravilla is a fourth-year public health sciences major. She can be reached at memaravi@uci.edu.

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