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Mental Health: A Hidden Crisis in Schools?

Mental health can influence all sorts of basic issues in education, from test scores to attendance and school discipline. Yet it’s a topic that education journalists often overlook.

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That was the message of Steve Drummond, education editor and an executive producer at NPR, who moderated the panel, “Mental Health: A Hidden Crisis in Schools?” at this year’s EWA national conference. NPR chronicled the problem in a 2016 package called “A Silent Epidemic; The Mental Health Crisis in Our Schools.”

Children with mental-health problems are three times more likely to miss school and 83 percent more likely to score below the mean in reading and math, according to data cited by Michael Lindsey, the executive director of New York University’s McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. Mental health problems are also linked to higher dropout rates, he said during the panel.

Yet schools may not be equipped to help students who are suffering from addiction, anxiety, depression and other challenges, Drummond said, nor to promote student wellness more broadly.

Anxious, Sleep-Deprived Children

Some school districts are trying. Pia Escudero, who leads mental health programming in the Los Angeles Unified School District, discussed her school system’s efforts to move toward a public health approach to meeting student needs.

In the district, 28 percent of students have been exposed to or have symptoms of toxic stress, she said. They might show up to class not having slept the night before, or overwhelmed with worry, for example.

LAUSD, the nation’s second largest school system, has introduced a curriculum to help students regulate their emotions. Also, the district has started educating adults (bus drivers, teachers, parents) on how to examine student behavior through a mental-health lens. After the Parkland school shooting in Florida, the district also began pairing social workers with school police, and it is collaborating with other city government agencies to pool resources and focus on prevention.

“We’re putting our children in jails. We’re hospitalizing our children. Our children are suffering from death by suicide and other pathologies,” said Escudero of the national situation. “That’s at great cost to our society. What would it look like if we invest early?”

African-Americans, Especially Boys, at Greater Risk

Lindsey of NYU noted that African-American boys are at particular risk of suicide. Among children ages 5 to 12, more black males are committing suicide than any other racial or ethnic group, he said. Lindsey blamed the increase in part on messaging around “toxic masculinity,” which encourages boys to be “tough” and suppress their emotions.

He noted that the Congressional Black Caucus recently unveiled a task force to study black youth suicide and mental health, which he hopes will help raise awareness of this overlooked topic.

“If suicide was a black phenomenon and all of a sudden there was an uptick in white kids committing suicide,” he said, “there would be a national outcry.”

The good news is that evidence-based interventions do exist to promote positive mental health, according to Tamar Mendelson, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

‘So Many Barriers … and Stories to Tell’

Effective programs can benefit all kids, not just those who are facing acute issues, she said. Mendelson noted that universal interventions have improved the academic performance of children with identified mental-health problems, along with those who wouldn’t normally have been eligible for extra support.

But just because effective programs exist doesn’t mean all students are benefiting.

“The problem is it’s so hard to get these evidence-based programs out in the real world in a sustainable way,” Mendelson said. “Schools are really strapped and stretched and getting programs thrown at them right and left.”

She encouraged schools — and journalists — to “go beyond thinking just about pathology and mental-health disorders” to “health and wellness more broadly.”

Lee Swain of the Jed Foundation, which works with high schools and colleges to improve mental health, agreed. While it often takes a tragedy like a suicide to prod schools to do better, news stories that link improved mental health to stronger academic performance can spur change even in the absence of some crisis, he said.

Other story ideas discussed by panelists included highlighting the importance of engaging parents in student mental health; the counselor and nursing shortages in schools; and obstacles to training and accrediting people in those professions.

“There are so many barriers,” said Escudero, “and stories to tell.”