States Work to Combat Mental Illness in Public K-12 Education
By Leah Byers, CSG graduate fellow and Elizabeth Whitehouse, CSG director of education and workforce development policy
Despite different beliefs about the goals of state-funded K-12 education, there is a general consensus that students cannot achieve those goals if their basic needs aren’t met. A child who is hungry, sick, tired or distressed does not have an equal opportunity to be successful in the classroom. Although some needs are easy to identify or simple to remedy, others are less obvious and potentially more difficult to resolve. Mental health is a component of student wellness that is gaining more public awareness as schools, districts and states try to overcome obstacles to student success.
Some states are hoping to improve mental health in schools by teaching students about it. When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed bill S. 6046-A-Chapter 390 into law in September, New York became the most recent state to expand its health education curriculum to include the topic of mental health. The bill sponsor is former CSG national chair and current chair of the New York Senate Education Committee, Sen. Carl Marcellino. Marcellino explained that the law seemed to make a needed extension of the current curriculum. “Over the years, our state’s health education [curriculum] has expanded to cover alcohol and drug abuse, and prevention of cancers and other diseases,” he said. “It is important that mental health be included in our discussion of physical health.”
Educating students about mental illness can help them recognize their own symptoms and know when and how to seek help. It also increases student awareness about the challenges that their peers may be facing. “It is my hope that these changes will reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, and allow students and their families to seek treatment if they are confronted with this,” Marcellino remarked. The senator suggested that mental health professionals in schools or state departments of education should coordinate with health teachers to plan lessons and educate students on the resources that are available to them.
Children and young adults are especially susceptible to mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health found that 1 out of 5 children in the U.S. currently has or has had at some point during their life a “seriously debilitating mental disorder.” According to the Child Mind Institute’s 2016 Children’s Mental Health Report, 50 percent of all people who have a mental illness in their lifetime begin experiencing symptoms by age 14; that number rises to 75 percent by age 24.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24. According to the National Alliance on Mental illness, or NAMI, around 90 percent of those who commit suicide have an underlying mental illness. Anxiety, depression and other disorders can be crippling if they aren’t dealt with properly. These diseases also can influence a student’s ability to be socially successful; students may have a hard time making friends or may become victims of bullying as a result of their illness. NAMI reports that students with mental illness are also more likely to drop out of high school or become involved in the juvenile justice system.
Although mental illness is a problem with serious and sometimes life-threatening consequences, NAMI reports that the average delay between the onset of symptoms of mental illness and intervention is eight to 10 years. Since students spend a large portion of their time at school, schools are uniquely positioned to identify symptoms of mental illness in its early stages and help students get the help that they need. Schools also need to address mental illness as a barrier to student success.
Despite the potential for schools to serve as a first level of defense against mental illnesses in children, they face significant challenges in attempting to do so. Teachers often lack the training needed to identify the symptoms of mental illness and schools rarely have adequate support staff needed to fill in the gap. On average, every school counselor has about 500 students under their care. School nurses often are not available to a school full time and they usually have hundreds of students for whom they are responsible. School psychologists are the ideal staff members to diagnose and assist students with mental illnesses, but this is a luxury that many schools do not have.
In the face of these challenges, state policymakers must decide what steps their state should take to deal with this problem.
Kentucky state Rep. Joni Jenkins highlighted existing options that school districts in her state use. “Some school districts partner with outside organizations like Federally Qualified Health Centers or Behavioral Health Service Organizations,” she explained. “Others employ mental health specialists for the district at-large or specific schools.”
According to Jenkins, the lack of a standardized model of care is an opportunity for districts to target their mental health care services based on the needs of their student population, and states can play a supporting role in increasing access to specialized care. “There are new opportunities for states to be proactive in helping schools meet the needs of more students by filling the gaps in mental health services,” she said. “So many schools lack access to providers that could address mental health issues that kids face. Helping school districts fund more health professionals and mental health specialists would be a step in the right direction.”