Mental Health Care in Schools

During P.E. in my sophomore year of high school, the coach had the class stand up in a circle. “Take everything off your wrists”, she commanded. A few teens had bandanas and wide bracelets on; they took them off. “Now, lift your hands to the ceiling, wrists facing me”, she said sternly with furrowed eyebrows. Our coach was a short, stout woman with an assertive demeanor that you didn’t want to mess with. She examined each student’s wrists, frowning and shaking her head side to side as she paused in front of some students longer than others. At the completion of the circle, she said “now sit down”. She proceeded to talk to other teachers and coaches in the corner of the gym. The conversation appeared to be filled with disdain and disgust.

No one ever told the class why that was done. Those with secrets under the cloth coverings knew, secret cries for help marked on the wrists of teenagers. There was no follow up to helping any of the exposed cutters. This was forced exposure for the sake of gossip. I know there was no action to help the hurting teens because I was one of them.

A year or two later, this coach became the principal. I told a teacher that I needed a counselor and was sent to the principal to talk to. Despite past experience, I poured my heart out. She wrote everything down and nodded a lot. She gave no advice. Venting helped but I don’t know why she wrote anything down. I think she was writing down evidence to do a child protection call or something. I didn’t need a scribe to write down all my words, I didn’t need child protection, I needed emotional support. She wasn’t qualified to give me the help I needed and should not have been the one I was sent to. I needed a trained mental health provider.

Things have changed exponentially for students since I was in high school. My experience was before the year 2000, before school shootings were all over the media, before the global pandemic. From the start of the pandemic in 2019 to 2020, mental health related emergency department visits by 12 to 17 year olds jumped 31%. A study published in February of 2019 found that an estimated 4 million youth with a treatable mental illness did not get treatment. The study was completed before pandemic. With more than $190 million in pandemic relief funds going to schools, some funds should be going to addressing mental health issues. Ohio, Georgia, Maryland, and Arizona are leading the way by using some of these funds to improve mental health care in their schools.

Many people are familiar with the term, school counselor as most schools have one. School counselors, however, do not deal with mental health issues. School counselors help with school academic success and career planning. Students also need school psychologists to support children by utilizing their expertise in mental health. This could be in the form of individual education planning (IEP) for gifted or disabled students or individual or group counseling. There is a critical shortage of school psychologists with an average of 1 for every 1,211 students in the U.S. The average public school has 526 students. That puts one psychologist over the care of 2.3 schools! Some states have a ratio of 1 psychologist to 5,000 students. As IEPs are legally required, it would be easy to understand if school psychologists only had time for these and no time for counseling or staff collaboration. Some of the pandemic relief funds could be used to incentivize school psychologists with increased salaries and school stipends in efforts to improve these ratios.

School staff members have the opportunity and responsibility to recognize and act on warning signs of mental crises in students, not ignore or criticize emotional battles. While Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is integrated in public schools, it is not the same as mental health care. SEL can promote mental wellness but is not a substitute for mental health care. $640 million is spent on SEL annually. While there are noted benefits for SEL, the need for school psychologists is greater. We need to spend more on mental health care in schools than we do. Some SEL funds could be redistributed for this. We need a ratio of more psychologists to less students. These trained psychologists should then act to educate both staff and the student body to recognize and treat mental illness in the school.

My high school experience should been different. I recognize that they may not have known how to handle the situation. That’s why this conversation is important. School staff members need to educate themselves on these matters for the safety and wellbeing of the entire community of their schools. I encourage parents to talk to staff and school board members, share concerns and ask questions. Everyone in every community has a vested interest in the care of students by way of their tax dollars and the shaping of their community. Even if you are not a teacher or parent, you have a right to learn, care, and speak out about the students’ mental wellbeing in your community.

Leave a Reply