By Stephanie McCauley
This year, NPR Ed published a series of articles covering the state of mental health in U.S. schools. In this “silent epidemic,” one in five children in the U.S. shows signs of a mental health disorder—including anxiety, depression, ADHD, and eating disorders, among others. However, many schools do not have the resources or experience to identify and support these kids. Teachers may not receive adequate training, counselors may be expected to work with too many children, and school budgets may simply not allow adequate funding to serve kids’ emotional needs.
To help, experts point to a “multi-tiered system of supports,” in which the entire school—teachers, counselors, and parents included—share the initial responsibility of helping kids find resources. Getting kids to open up about their worries is the first, and often most difficult, step. After this first step, attention becomes more specialized; a student might need immediate care (such as a referral to a mental health clinic) or might benefit from small-group sessions with other children. This kind of approach may be especially helpful in schools with children with histories of poverty and trauma.
However, even with a tiered system in place, much of the responsibility falls on teachers, who may not succeed as the first line of defense (see this article from The Atlantic for more). And even when a child is identified, appointments with experts may not happen. Sometimes families are too busy or health clinics are booked for months in advance. Families might also be suffering from poverty, which makes it difficult to keep up with prescriptions and doctor visits.
Getting children help early may be the key. And even kindergarten may be too late, according to some experts. Still, there are programs all over the U.S. that are working to help children with mental disorders, including therapeutic alternative day programs for kids with severe social anxiety and other programs implemented within schools. As more of these programs gain traction, schools and parents can begin the difficult work to destigmatize mental health awareness and offer students the support that they need.