Mental Health Programs Should Start in the Schools

It has been noted that the most predominant health concerns faced by our youth are mental health disorders.  While one out of every five children has a mental health or learning disorder, 1 in 10 children have “a mental health challenge that is severe enough to impair how they function at home, school or in the community,” according to the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH). And worse, 80% do not receive the mental health care support that they need.

The ACMH goes on to say that “mental health problems are common and often develop during childhood and adolescence.”  It makes sense that we should learn the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, and begin advocating on behalf of children, in the early stages of development.  Since kids (aged 6-17) spend the largest portion of their days in school and school-related activities, it also makes sense that we should start by improving the recognition of mental illness and by supporting kids who exhibit these concerns in the school setting.

It is important to note that mental illness is treatable and that early recognition and proper intervention strategies do work!

What is a mental illness?

A mental illness, or a mental health disorder, refers to a range of conditions that influence mood, thinking, and behavior.  Some familiar factors that might start in schools which can cause these conditions in a child range from problems at home, bullying, poor self-image or lack of friends or healthy relationships.  Other contributing risk factors could include genetics, medical conditions, or being abused or neglected.  These factors can lead to anxiety, mood disorders, depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors, i.e., drugs, alcohol.

A mental health concern is different than a mental illness. Some [children] will experience a mental health concern once in a while; however, when the symptoms are ongoing, cause consistent stress, and inhibit a child’s ability to function (in the classroom, on the playing field, or even at home), that mental health concern becomes a mental illness.

Symptoms of Mental Illness

Mental illnesses can affect what a child feels and how he/she thinks and acts.

Some symptoms in children (and in adults) may include:

  • Feelings of sadness
  • Feelings of confusion
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Overly anxious
  • Extreme high-to-low/low-to-high mood changes
  • Withdrawal from relationships, i.e., friends, parents
  • Withdrawal from home or extra-curricular activities
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Experiences delusions, paranoia or hallucinations
  • Experiences significant changes in eating habits
  • Is overly angry, hostile or violent
  • Suicidal thinking

Why mental illness has to be treated

Symptoms of mental illnesses do not typically go away on their own, so as a result, it is important to address them.  Speak with, encourage, and support children exhibiting these symptoms.  Consider building a support network for them that includes teachers and school administrators. Additionally, consider making an appointment with a primary care physician or a mental health provider, who may propose psychotherapy as an initial strategy, and perhaps medication as a secondary one.  If not treated, the symptoms can worsen.  Therefore, it is essential that caregivers find treatment as soon as possible for each child.

Mental illness intervention for children should start in the schools

While in school, mental health disorders can affect classroom learning and the ability to proficiently interact with teachers and peers.  If these disorders are occurring in school, they should be addressed in school. And if appropriate support services are established, the probability of a successful outcome improves while the probability of a negative outcome diminishes.

The mental health programs that are established must be well planned and flexible. Each child is different and will have a unique set of needs. For example, a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder would be helped if his/her teachers are taught proper interaction methods; a young person struggling with disorganization can benefit from a planning skills workshop; aggressive and exceedingly anxious children could benefit from therapy that explores the pathway leading to those feelings and is subsequently taught strategies to recognize them and address them before they escalate; and a child who finds it difficult to interact with teachers and peers may utilize the new skillset in role-playing.

Effective mental health programs in schools should initially help children and adolescents recognize the emotions and thoughts that trigger their behavioral issues. After that, it is important to teach them new skills in an environment where they can safely practice them.

References
Mental Illness Symptoms
Child Mind Institute

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