February 29, 2016
MENTAL HEALTH IN SIMPLEST TERMS
As current society grapples with headlines that include school shootings, stand-offs with police and government officials, terroristic threats, a break-up of traditional family and community values, and political rhetoric designed to inspire isolation and distrust, adults are challenged to find meaning and connection in a world not so familiar, and not so kind. As difficult as this can be for adults, it is significantly more challenging for children.
Because a child’s brain is not fully developed, many executive functions needed for problem solving and self-regulation are not in place. Lack of life experiences render youth unable to reference previous examples of outcomes, creating anxious responses to unfamiliar situations. Thus, the perspectives of children can be irrational and emotionally charged.
It is possibly as a result of this “perfect storm” of poorly developed coping mechanisms, and a heightened focus on crisis, that children are demonstrating socially unacceptable behaviors and extreme emotions. This along with many other factors may be contributing to poor social skill development and a deterioration of overall mental health.
Regardless of the cause, professionals are beginning to discern that mental wellness and the development of positive social/emotional skills are at risk for today’s youth. According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20% of youth between the ages of 13 and 18 live with a mental health condition. Eleven percent of youth suffer from a mood disorder, 10% a conduct or behavior disorder, and 8% are struggling with anxiety disorder. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10 to 24. Ninety percent of those who died had an underlying mental illness.
What a Mental Health Focus is NOT
Focusing on mental health issues is not a way to excuse unacceptable behavior. Despite the emotional state of an individual, living with natural consequences of actions taken is an important life lesson.
Including a mental health perspective when talking about behavior or learning struggles is not seeking to find fault. Discussing mental health concerns neither suggests inherent poor parenting nor poor classroom instruction. However, rethinking environmental conditions, instruction, direction, and reinforcement can have a tremendous impact on child/youth emotion and behavior.
Mental Health is not a joke. The anguish that exists as the result of a mental illness is as painful and life altering as life threatening diseases, significant injuries, or loss.
Mental health is not an unknown. Behavior and emotion can be measured and monitored. Events, actions, circumstances, and consequences can be identified and altered to cause behavioral change and emotional stability.
A mental health focus will not involve a quick fix. As with all developmental areas, mental health and emotional wellness are complex issues that require significant thought and extended problem-solving, and intervention implementation.
What a Mental Health Focus CAN BE
A mental health focus allows families, school staff, and community representatives to begin identifying factors that may be contributing to the emotional instability of a child or an adult. The identification of those factors will take time, commitment, and flexibility.
Authors Stephen E. Brock and H. Thomas Brant indicate in their article, “Four Ways to Improve Student Mental-Health Support” that there are 4 critical steps to improving support for mental wellness.
1. Offer a continuum of school and community mental-health supports. This includes a multi-tiered system of supports within the educational setting. Universal screening, social-emotional curriculum development and use, universal wellness promotion, and school and community-based mental-health treatment.
2. Broaden access to school mental-health supports beyond special education. Rather than providing behavior and emotional support services to special education students, schools can incorporate mental health into the MTSS process so that all children are served and supported.
3. Improve school-community collaboration to provide integrated and coordinated mental-health care. Schools and communities must work together to maintain a continuum of services that allow for fewer missed opportunities with children.
4. Empower families to manage the myriad decisions and resources they need to meet their child’s mental-health needs. Improving the communication to parents and respecting their decisions will increase the likelihood that the child will receive the help needed.
A mental health focus completes the “whole child” view. While academic skill development, physical growth and development, social skills development, communication skills development, and vocational skills development are all noble areas of concentration, little can be accomplished when a student is emotionally distraught, unable to self-regulate, or without the capacity to attend to tasks.
Why We Should Care
According to the National Center for Mental Health Checkups at Columbia University:
For adolescents, ages 13 to 18, the lifetime prevalence of mental disorders severe enough to cause significant impairment in daily functioning is approximately 20%. The average size of a secondary school class in the United States is approximately 23 students, meaning there may be four or five adolescents in every classroom who are struggling with serious mental illness. Yet, nearly two-thirds of these adolescents do not receive mental health services. This is particularly troubling because mental illness does not affect emotional health in isolation; it is known to influence and co-occur with problems in many domains of students’ lives, including their social interactions and educational achievements. In order to promote the best possible outcomes for students, there is a great need for early identification and treatment of mental health disorders.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that “Mental health in childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and in their communities.”
As Educators, our role is focused upon the growth and advancement of all children. We work to create opportunities that encourage an increase in knowledge and skill development. To overlook the importance of developing healthy minds in children seems as foolhardy as choosing to avoid basic car maintenance while owning a car. It is our charge to find meaningful ways to help students learn. Embracing the importance of mental health and seeking methods for assisting children and families in crisis must be our purpose.
-by Stacy Romick-Imig Ed.S., ESU 10 Psychologist