Not Suicide Prevention, but Comprehensive Mental Health Focus Needed in Schools

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The recent incidents of suicide in Newton are rightfully a cause for alarm. And the soul searching and actions steps taken –community forums that encourage open and honest dialogue about teen suicide, staff training in suicide screening and prevention, help lines and increased mental health supports, etc. — are the right responses. Newton and other communities around the country addressing spikes in teen suicide are to be commended for their efforts in the face of great personal pain and community grief.

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Schools and districts require comprehensive mental health strategies to support students in additional to academic strategies.

To take a step back, though, the larger issue these and most communities face is the lack of comprehensive district and school level mental health plans, strategies and resources that elevate the importance of student behavioral health, put in place screening and preventative steps, and provide targeted interventions for those who need it. While some students are suicidal, many more are depressed, anxious, substance abusers, bullied, feeling isolated from peers, adults or both, facing identity issues, or lacking interpersonal skills. Increasingly many are homeless (see earlier blog post on homelessness and schools). These students need help, and more schools should be prepared to tell them: (1) that there is no shame in experiencing depression and anxiety/how common their experience is; (2) asking for help is okay, even valued, and; (3) help is available.

Yet, to be able to offer this kind of response, most districts and schools will have to overcome two key obstacles:

Limited Time. So much of the school day and is allocated to academics – and understandably so with the demand placed on schools and students to perform well on assessments and gain admittance to college. Teachers are trained in academic content areas and evaluations of their performance are increasingly based on student academic performance. Thus, in the end there is little time and emphasis placed on student emotional well-being. This focus is not wrong – teaching and learning are the primary mission of schools. Yet schools and teachers who do not build in opportunities to screen for, create awareness about, and normalize mental health issues among students and families are not serving the whole student. Moreover, these issues often then impede the main priority of academic success.

Some schools have developed successful ‘first-tier’ teacher-led social or student group models, in which teachers and other support staff –ideally trained for this role—meet regularly with smaller groups of students to facilitate discussions of social-emotional issues and identify available support resources. Other initiatives, such as Making Caring Common at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, are developing curricula, tools and tips to raise awareness about social emotional issues, such as bullying, and to develop more empathetic school cultures, among both students and adults. Aspire’s own Connected Beginnings, begins this work earlier, providing training and consulting in early childhood mental health and challenging behaviors to infant/toddler and preschool providers. 

In addition there are a few ‘low-burden’ things that schools can do that would help with prevention as well as academic achievement. Schools might for example, administer periodic, brief health surveys that give quick reads of stress, anger or depression. They might establish ‘safe spaces’ or a place at school where students know they can talk to adults confidentially.

Limited Professionals. For students who need additional support, schools have little in the way of mental health or counseling services, often relying on one social worker who is typically part-time or shared with one or more schools. Given tight budgets, this is unlikely to change. Yet districts and schools often find creative ways to partner with behavioral health providers to expand their capacity to offer services. Coordinated School Health and Integrated Student Support models, such as City Connects, support schools in this effort. Further, as more primary care centers adopt patient-centered medical home models, schools may have more opportunities to link students and families to behavioral health services. However, too often it is left to individual schools and principals – especially in large urban districts—to arrange these types of partnerships. Districts should play more active roles in recruiting, vetting and monitoring behavioral health partnerships to ensure equity of services across schools.

While it may feel like this is yet another responsibility to fall on educators, the reality is that schools are where our children and youth spend the most time over their first 18 years. And it is in school that we often have the best chance of normalizing, identifying and addressing mental health issues. It shouldn’t be only at a community forum that we begin to talk openly and honestly about these issues – from suicide, to bullying, to substance abuse, to anxiety. They should be woven into every day school culture and practices.

jake-resized-600.jpgJake Murray is the director of the Aspire Institute at Wheelock College, a center dedicated to advancing knowledge and solutions in response to social and educational challenges, and to developing effective policy and practice in the fields of education, child and human development, and health and wellness.


Photo of reading students courtesy of the US DOE Flickr feed and used under a Creative Commons attribution license. 

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  1. I think the focus on mental health is very important especially in our schools but I am sure that there are a lot of parents who won’t feel the same way because they don’t see mental health as importantly as they do physical health.