Mental health awareness

I really appreciated the awareness brought to the need for mental health services in schools in the Feb. 12 news article, “Legislators push for mental health funding.” I fully support the initiatives going on right now to increase mental health access in schools that are being proposed federally and locally.

As a social work intern at an elementary school, I have seen and experienced firsthand the pitfalls of the current system. Children who desperately need help are falling through the cracks at an alarming rate.

Many of the special education students I work with have a diagnosed mental illness and do not receive outside services. Most of these students are low-income, live in poverty and/or have no health insurance. Outside resources are constantly recommended for these students to their parents or guardians, but many do not follow through because of cost, transportation, time conflicts, mistrust or the parent or guardian’s preoccupation with their own mental illness, stressors or addictions.

One little boy with a horribly traumatic past was referred to a third party that would provide in-school services only to be denied because his family was “too intense.” This is a child who has experienced homelessness, abuse, foster homes and being separated from his family — all before the age of 8. To give this student a chance at a bright, successful future, he needs and deserves quality services provided to him in the school system.

An estimated 21 percent of children ages 9-17 experience the signs and symptoms of a mental health disorder during the course of a year. On average, only 16 percent of children in need of mental health services get the help they need. Of that 16 percent, 70-80 percent of children receive that care in a school setting. Schools provide direct contact with children in a single location where a majority can be reached. Offering services in a school setting may help make seeking treatment more acceptable and less stigmatizing and reduce community barriers such as cost, transportation and family and demographic factors because the services are provided in school.

Having mental health services at the elementary level gives opportunities for early intervention to promote healthy development and academic success that would stay with the child in school and after. High-risk students would receive the attention and the help they need to help reduce and prevent delinquent behaviors such as bullying, getting involved with drugs and alcohol, dropping out of school and being in the juvenile justice system.

At the other end of the continuum are those who believe that arming school staff would prevent future school shootings. However, 80 percent of firearm deaths in the United States and an estimated 41 percent of gun-related homicides would not occur under the same circumstances had no guns been present. Guns are used to intimidate and threaten four to six times more often than they are used to prevent crime. People in possession of a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault. On average, guns did not seem to protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overact, instigate arguments and lose manageable conflicts with a similarly armed individual. The average NYPD hit rate during a gun fight from 1998 to 2006 was 30 percent when the target did not fire back but dropped to 18 percent when the target was shooting at officers. In a school shooting situation, the chances that an officer or armed teacher would shoot a child by accident is just as high as the chance of arriving officers mistakenly shooting anyone seen with a weapon.

As President Barack Obama put it, “We are going to need to work on making access to mental health care as easy as access to a gun.” We have ignored our nation’s children for too long, and now is the time to act.

Please support these initiatives federally and locally: The Mental Health in Schools Act of 2013, which provides access to more comprehensive school-based mental health services and support; MN H.R. 363, to establish minimum ratios for students per school counselors; MN H.R. 353, to appropriate funds for children’s school-based mental health grants and the Student Support Act of 2013, to assist states in hiring additional school-based mental health and student service providers.