Tag Archive for: Educators
Why Don’t Teachers Get Mental Health Disorder Training
I love teaching writing; it’s where revelations happen, where children plumb the dark corners, nudge the sleeping dogs, and work out solutions to their most convoluted dilemmas. As much as I adore reading student work, I still get a little nervous about what I’ll find there. Among the stories of what my teenage students did last summer and what they want to be when they grow up are the more emotionally loaded accounts: firsts (periods, kisses, or failures), transitions (moves, their parents’ divorces, or custody disputes), and departures (dropouts, graduations, or suicide attempts).
Over the years, my students have entrusted me with their most harrowing moments: psychotic hallucinations, sexual molestation, physical abuse, substance abuse, HIV exposures, and all sorts of self-injurious behavior ranging from cutting to starvation to trichotillomania. When students write about delicate and dangerous experiences, there are decisions to be made and judgments to be called. And yet, for much of my career, I have been horribly unprepared and have failed to secure the services my students needed as a result.
Teachers are often the first person children turn to when they are in crisis, and yet they are, as a profession, woefully unprepared to identify students’ mental-health issues and connect them with the services they need—even when those services are provided by schools. Aside from the obligatory professional-development session on mandatory reporting laws for child abuse and neglect we have to attend during new faculty orientation, teachers receive little or no education in evidence-based mental-health interventions. According to Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Most teachers are not trained about mental health in their formal education and degree programs, and yet an unidentified mental-health condition often interferes with a student’s ability to learn and reach their full academic potential.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in five children currently have or will experience a severe mental disorder. For some disorders, such as anxiety, the rates are even higher. For people who do experience mental-health disorders, most experienced their first symptoms before young adulthood. Half of all people with mental disorders experienced the onset of symptoms by age of 14; 75 percent by age 24. Half of these students will drop out of school. As suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults, lack of appropriate mental-health interventions and treatment can mean the difference between life and death. Given the amount of time children spend at school, teachers are likely be the ones to identify and refer children for mental-health services. For children fortunate enough to be identified and given access to those services, treatment will mostly likely take place at school, as schools serve as the primary providers of mental services for children in this country.
However, all the mental-health services in the world won’t help if teachers don’t understand the nature of the services available in school and can’t identify the students in need of intervention.
In 2011, researchers at the University of Missouri looked at whether teachers understood the 10 evidence-based mental-health interventions or resources their schools employed. The results were disheartening, to say the least. While two-thirds of the surveyed teachers held graduate degrees, and the remaining third had earned undergraduate degrees, more than 80 percent had never heard of some of the interventions or strategies their own school utilized. Half of the teachers surveyed did not know if their schools provided functional behavioral assessment or intervention planning at all. Given that the response rate for this study was only 50 percent—and it’s likely that teachers with a heightened interest in student mental health would be more likely to respond to the survey—these results probably overstate teachers’ understanding of the tools their own school districts use to support students’ mental and emotional health.
As an increasing number of schools roll out evidence-based mental-health programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), teaching that promotes appropriate student behavior by proactively defining, teaching, and supporting positive student conduct, and Trauma-Sensitive Schools, programs aimed at reducing the effects of trauma on children’s emotional and academic well-being, educators need to be at least minimally conversant in the terminology, methods, and thinking behind these strategies. These programs provide strategies that can be highly effective, but only if the teachers tasked with implementing them are sufficiently trained in the basics of mental-health interventions and treatment.
Teachers routinely receive first-aid training in CPR, EpiPen use, and safe body fluid cleanup, but it’s rare for schools to offer training in mental health, said Todd Giszack, Academic Dean of Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Virginia. Recognizing that schools are responsible for their students’ mental, as well as physical health, Fork Union Military Academy designed and implemented its own curriculum with the help of two mental-health professionals, and now offers eight-hour certification programs in Mental Health First Aid. “It has taken two years, but nearly all of our faculty and staff has become certified in Mental Health First Aid. This has allowed our school community to become familiar with trends and warning signs associated with adolescent emotional and mental health” Giszack said.
Dr. Michael Hollander, Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of Training and Consultations on the 3East Dialectical Behavioral Therapy program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, urges teachers to use caution when intervening in students’ mental-health crises. “In my experience, teacher response tends to be bi-modal; either they get solicitous, over-involved, and in over their head, or they mistake mental health issues for behavioral problems that require in-class discipline.”
Programs such as NAMI’s Parents and Teachers as Allies presentation are beneficial, Dr. Hollander said, because they help teachers understand both the benefits and limitations of in-class interventions. Despite his worries about teacher-facilitated mental health interventions, he’s grateful for the trend toward a greater understanding of students’ mental health. “We have arrived at a place where we finally understand that teaching is not just about educating someone’s rational mind, but also educating their heart,” he said.
Children with untreated mental-health issues can get by. They can limp along toward adulthood until an inevitable, eventual mental-health crisis lands them in the hospital, in jail, or even at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility for adolescents, where I teach. But by then, a lot of damage has been done to their young minds and hearts—damage that could have been prevented if they had received support when their symptoms first appeared.
As I read their essays about crippling childhood anxiety, alcoholic parents, and/or domestic violence, I can’t help but mourn for all the lost opportunities and squandered potential that was wasted on the way.
Researchers have found that teachers and other school personnel may show bias against children in divorced families without even realizing it. This bias can impact expectations about a student’s academic, social and emotional functioning. Even though children are amazing in their ability to navigate the changes and challenges of life, students who experience this type of bias can be at increased risk for long-term mental health struggles later in life.
Recently, Counseling@NYU released a guide to help with this issue because it is essential for educators and parents to work together to ensure the effects of divorce on a child do not become permanent. Educators can use the guide to identify misconceptions about divorce that may impact their behavior and bias and to better understand their role in working with families going through a divorce.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to assess whether a divorce is negatively impacting a child or whether problem behaviors are just an expected part of the growing process. Knowing the signs of struggle according to age can help parents and educators identify whether a child needs additional support:
- Blame themselves or their “bad behavior” for the divorce
- Complain of headaches and/or stomach pain
- Experience separation anxiety and/or emotional outbursts
- Regress to younger behaviors, like needing a pacifier, wetting the bed or throwing tantrums
Younger children may lack the ability to communicate their thinking about the divorce. Parents should ensure young children that no bad behavior will ever make them leave or stop them from loving their child. In addition to seeking professional support, educators and parents should create space for children to express their fears and worries about the divorce.
- Most likely to show anger, embarrassment or frustration
- Might stir up conflict with peers
- Could show frequent tearful distress and/or lack of interest in activities
Children of this age may feel pressure to “pick a side,” keep both parents happy or take personal responsibility for one parent’s emotional well-being. Educators should work with parents to encourage students to try out new activities that can direct their attention toward play and creativity.
- Experiment with new and risky behaviors (i.e. substance use)
- Display extreme moodiness or negativity
- Begin demonstrating poor school performance and/or disinterest/distraction from their future
Teenagers experiencing the effects of a divorce might feel guilty about leaving home or feel that they have to change or sacrifice their plans. Parents can support teens’ mental health by encouraging them to pursue their goals and to plan for the future. Educators can do the same by listening to their students’ college goals, for example, and helping them plan.
At any age, individual professional counseling can be a useful space for children to express their frustrations outside the home and to get help for extreme changes in behavior. Educators and school counselors can also set up counseling groups for children in changing families so students know that they are not alone. With thoughtful and engaged parents and educators, children can maintain good mental health and healthy relationships later in life, despite divorce.
Michelle Manno is the education editor at 2U. She works with programs such as Counseling@NYU’s online master’s in school counseling and online master’s in mental health counseling from NYU Steinhardt to create resources that support K-12 students. Say hi on Twitter @michellermanno.