How the American Education System Fails Children with Mental Health Concerns

The diagnosis of mental illness in children has reached crisis levels–an issue that has been widely ignored up until recently.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated “1 in 5 children are diagnosed with some kind of mental disorder, including but not limited to, ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, behavioral issues, mood or anxiety disorder, or substance abuse disorders.”

“In Nevada, like most states in the country, we find that about 13-20 percent of children ages 5-18 have some sort of mental health disorder.” University of Nevada Reno graduate, and deputy administrator for the State of Nevada, Division of Child and Family Services Kelly Wooldridge tells Health Watch. “The other thing that’s happened in Nevada, is that over the last five years we’ve seen a steady increase in children and families having to go to emergency departments to get their behavioral health needs met. That’s one of the things we struggle with in Nevada, is easy access to services.”

While the number of children who are diagnosed rises, resources for children after diagnosis continues to be inadequate. This is troublesome, especially when you consider that when left undiagnosed, mental disorders in children can have disastrous effects both at home and in the classroom, and can drastically impact their physical health.

“Kids who suffer from mental health disorders…inevitably miss out on opportunities for learning and building relationships,” David Anderson from the Child Mind Institute tells NPR.

Lack of mental healthcare treatment in children can lead to the inability for children to process their emotions, and can also affect their behavior and learning patterns at school. Of the 5 million students affected by some kind of mental health disorder, nearly 80 percent of those receive no treatment whatsoever. The lack of care is especially pronounced for children of color and the uninsured poor.

This treatment gap can be explained by a number of factors. Parents, teachers, and counselors each deal with a number of situations which negatively impact children’s mental health.

Perhaps most profound being that often schools are the first providers of mental health care, but due to budget restraints, those who are the most equipped to help students manage their mental health are both overworked and in short supply.

Teachers see their students nearly every day, and are the most likely to spot sudden changes in mood, study habits, or any obvious sign of trauma. But teachers are also report feeling ill equipped to handle student mental health. Additionally, teachers have many other roles to play in classrooms that seem to expand each school year.

As a result, students are often sent to nurses, counselors, and school psychologists, and while they’re the most qualified to help students find outside resources to manage their mental health, they too are overworked. On average, school counselors work with as many as 500 students. School nurses, too, are responsible for large numbers of students, and many don’t work at the school full time. Psychologists are even more rare.

Experts agree that there are better ways for educational teams, parents, and the community to reach solutions for this crisis. Some states have begun putting solutions into action. The state of Nevada, for example, has partnered with a local university, implementing a system entitled, “systems of care.”

“This model is really important because it requires states to develop a system that includes parents and caregivers in decisions about their children’s needs and being at the table in those discussions,” says University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Social Work professor Jill Manit, a key player in helping implement this system. It’s also based on the community and it asks that service providers come together to coordinate the services for children and families so that those families…don’t have to figure it out on their own. Finally, the model requires that states meet the cultural and linguistic needs of the families in their state.”

It’s clear that practices like this need to be implemented in state’s across the country. In an ideal world, parents, administrators, and school staff would have proper mental healthcare training, and be more easily able to watch for warning signs. Each adult in a student’s life would be able to fulfill their role, and connect students with adequate resources to effectively manage their mental health.

Still, until mental health in America is taken more seriously, both for adults and children, it’s likely that the demands on educators will remain too high for effective treatment.

“Mental health is all too often one of the last things that we pay attention to ,even though we know how immensely important it is,” Anderson says.

For now, though it’s clear that students with mental health issues are in desperate need of support on multiple levels, under the current system, children’s mental health continues to be an area in need of vast improvement.

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