New York State School Boards Association

The growing mental health crisis in schools

by Timothy G. Kremer

On Board Online • March 27, 2017

Timothy G. Kremer
NYSSBA Executive Director

What movie had the most impact on you this year? Manchester By the Sea? Moonlight? Fences?

For me, it was Boy Interrupted. It is a wrenching, real-life documentary about a family torn apart by every parent's worst nightmare: the death of a child by suicide.

Made in 2009, the film was recommended to me by experts who will be speaking at NYSSBA's May 20 summit on "Your Role in Addressing the Growing Mental Health Crisis Among Students."

The film was produced by the parents of Evan Perry, who was diagnosed with bipolar depression and jumped to his death from his family's apartment window at age 15.

Twenty percent of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives. You probably don't find that surprising. But did you know that about half of them with begin experiencing symptoms of anxiety and even severe depression as early as age 14?

That's why schools need to get better at understanding and addressing mental health issues. Nearly 80 percent of youths with mental health issues go without treatment for years. Many "self-medicate" through drugs and alcohol. The sad trajectory often involves failing to work up to their potential in academics, getting into trouble with the law, and sometimes, tragically, committing suicide.

That, in a nutshell, is what happened to my younger brother, "Pete." He died alone in 1998, after years of undiagnosed misery.

So, preparing for NYSSBA's summit on mental health issues has been more than a professional task for me. It's been a personal journey. I am just beginning to understand what my brother must have been going through.

We all know that certain behaviors - chronic absenteeism, disruptiveness, self-harm - interfere with our goal of ensuring every student gets a good education. How many of these behaviors have a mental health component? Although we've made a lot of progress, a stigma still surrounds mental illness.

Let's not wait for another school shooting or a pattern of suicides to make mental health education a priority in our public schools.

By the way, there is a state mandate to consider. Effective July 1, 2018, schools will be required to provide mental health instruction as part of the health curriculum. The goal of the new requirement is to equip students with knowledge of their own mental wellness, a deeper understanding of the wellness of others, and awareness of when and how to access treatment for oneself and others.

Of course, schools have been teaching about various health and wellness topics for decades, and educators recognize that schools play a huge role in identifying students who are struggling academically, emotionally and physically, and helping them to succeed.

Our goal should not merely be fulfilling the state mandate. Our goal should be to address the issue in a comprehensive and powerful way, so we make a real difference in the lives of young people.

In many schools, counselors are drowning under heavy caseloads. Typically, there is one school psychologist for every 1,400 students, and the school nurse-to-student ratio is far too high. This particular mandate cannot go unfunded.

Teachers and principals currently receive minimal training in mental health. But they, too, are on the front lines of dealing with all the issues associated with mental health.

The good news is that we know more about how to deal with mental health issues than ever before. Researchers are discovering a variety of therapeutic approaches that teachers can incorporate into school curricula to help young people alleviate anxiety and depression, approach negative situations with a positive attitude, and make healthier choices.

No matter what our role in schools, we all have a responsibility to address the growing mental health crisis among students. Our first step is to bring the issue out from the shadows and begin a statewide conversation about the scope of the problem and its impact on children. It is time for the full education community to discuss what can be done, how and by whom.

That's why NYSSBA has worked in cooperation with many like-minded groups to offer a day-long summit on Saturday, May 20 in Latham entitled "Your Role in Addressing the Growing Mental Health Crisis among Our Students." I hope you go to www.nyssba.org/summit to register for this important event.


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