When your child’s fever spikes or her arm breaks, figuring out where to go for help is pretty obvious. That’s not true, though, when the concern involves mental health. Is a half-hour visit with the pediatrician the best way to get to the bottom of your 8-year-old’s out-of-control tantrums? Maybe your son or daughter is really anxious about school each day: should you set up a parent-teacher conference or a trip to the psychiatrist?
Stigma keeps us from talking about children’s mental health the same way we do physical health, and that’s part of the reason for this week’s Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. After a string of highly publicized suicides by young bullying victims, this year’s event feels especially important—as though this particular awareness has life-and-death importance.
Returning to that basic question—where do you go when a child struggles emotionally or psychologically?—it’s worth noting that, for many families, no easy answer exists. What’s known is that, although there are services and programs and professionals whose work it is to improve kids’ mental health, there probably are not enough. In fact, your child, being a Texan, has less of a chance of getting mental health care than a child from any other state. It’s not just that Texas under-funds mental health services . . . not just that insurance companies here balk at covering mental health treatments. . . not just that there are fewer than 200 child psychiatrists in a state with three-quarters-of-a-million kids exhibiting mental illness. It’s all those things.
Stepping in to fill the mental-health delivery gaps are our poor schools. That’s where, the experts say, most mental health help for kids takes place. Schools’ business is education, but it’s hard to educate children struggling with untreated ADHD or depression. Yet, for each guidance counselor in a school, there are hundreds upon hundreds of kids. Counselors, nurses, and teachers all report feeling they lack the training or bandwidth to support children who need this sort of help.
What happens next for those kids who miss out on getting support can be tragic or just unfortunate. There are kids who fall behind academically, kids who get pushed out of school for behavior that stems from their mental illness, schools that get in the habit of responding somewhat absurdly to patterns of misbehavior. What else would you call it when we have police officers in schools, writing criminal citations to young kids for ridiculous reasons? There’s something disturbing about knowing the people trained to work with criminals are spending their days instead with children. Most troubled kids, after all, need help not handcuffs.
So let me add a few items to the list, put together by the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, of what you can do to support this awareness week. Each of these actions would take less than 10 minutes and could truly make a difference for thousands of children:
1) Call on key Texas lawmakers to vote for HB 1340 so schools handle behavior and discipline issues better: This bill, currently pending in a legislative committee, would connect more schools with a cost-effective, proven approach for addressing behavioral issues on campus. It’s called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and it works by setting clear expectations for everyone in the school (yes, everyone… not just students, but also teachers, principals, even the lunch lady). Students learn how to act, instead of just getting told how NOT to act, and those with mental health concerns are more likely to get the help they need. Schools both in Texas and across the country using it report fewer discipline problems and greater feelings of safety on campus. Learn more about the bill and who to call.
2) Ask legislators to get moving on the school police and SRO training bill, HB 348: To address the problem of school resource officers (SROs) and school police treating kids like criminals, this bill would ensure school-campus cops get training they need to keep kids safe. The bill needs to go before the House for a vote and is stuck in the Calendars Committee, whose members you can call.
3) Get involved. OK, actually this one will take more than 10 minutes. But your school probably has a PTA. Your school district has a School Health Advisory Council. And it has a school board, too. Go to a meeting of any one of these groups to speak out in support of children’s mental health. Chances are there are unmet opportunities you can highlight. Possibly, there are mental health programs or positions on the chopping block that need defending. Either way, kids could use your help and your voice.
Written by Christine Sinatra