Op-ed: The importance of mental health in schools

More than a month after the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., mental health professionals stated that psychological disorders often emerge before people enter high school; however, only a small percentage of students ever receives necessary intervention or treatment.

This is due to lack of knowledge and failure to recognize symptoms. The mass shootings in recent years have raised a debate about gun control and mental health, including a push by President Barack Obama for stronger gun controls and better mental health training for schools and communities.

Since school professionals often lack fundamental evidence-based knowledge and skills to recognize and intervene with students at risk for mental illness, it is important to better prepare all school-based personnel to effectively face the mental health challenges of today’s youth.

A proposed piece of legislation called the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 was assigned to a congressional committee on Jan. 15 and was introduced in the House of Representatives by Ron Barber (D-Tucson, Ariz.). This legislation would provide critical resources to train teachers and school administrators, police officers, faith community leaders and nurses, as well as students and their parents, to help identify the warning signs of mental illness and treat people suffering from psychological disorders before they damage or destroy other lives. By providing resources to train our school officials, law enforcement professionals and emergency personnel how to recognize and refer people with mental health issues, the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 will increase the health and safety of our communities.

With the anxious awareness of an increase in the mental health needs of youth today, there is insufficient traditional pre-service preparation training programs for school-based personnel in the area of mental health. Teachers complete only a basic general psychology course that has little relevant practical application to the classroom. It is essential that teachers are equipped with a basic and necessary knowledge of factors that influence not only the development of mental illness in school age children, but also those proactive, strengths-based prevention efforts that promote mental health and resilience. The mission of schools should consist of not only an emphasis on meeting the demands of academic learning, but also in promoting development related to social and emotional functioning with the consequences of safe, healthy, and resilient behavior. Under the Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013, teachers would benefit from education, training, and consultation from mental health professionals if they serve as effective gatekeepers to mental health services.

By failure to fulfill an obligation, our nation's schools may be viewed as community mental health centers where more than 10% of the children in the general education population may suffer from a psychiatric disorder.


ANI HARUTYUNYAN is a resident of Glendale who is working on her Master’s Degree in social work at the University of Southern California. She can be reached at aniharut@usc.edu.

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