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Not Just Adults: a Look at America's Student Mental Health Crisis

Over the past few years, national tragedies have increased pressure for the United States to improve access to mental health care. In late 2013, Barack Obama issued regulations which directed all private insurance plans to cover mental health in the same way they covered physical health problems.

While this certainly expanded access to mental health benefits for many Americans, the reach of those benefits hasn't kept up. The current state of America's Mental Health system is inadequate to keep up with present demand.

"Right to care does not mean access to treatment," Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist tells The Guardian. "Tens of millions of people who did not have insurance coverage may now be prompted to seek mental health treatment. And the capacity just isn't there to treat them. There really is no mental health system in the U.S."

Applebaum's blunt sentiments America's mental health crisis have been echoed by doctors, counselors, and health care professionals across the country. But up until recently, another pressing issue has largely been ignored: the lack of mental health care for children.

"In Nevada, like most states in the country, we find that about 13-20 percent of children ages 5-18 have some sort of mental health disorder," Kelly Woolridge, deputy administrator for the State of Nevada, Division of Child and Family Services tells Health Watch. "The other thing that's happened in Nevada is that over the last five years, we've seen a steady increase in children and families having to go to emergency departments to get their behavioral health needs met. That's one of the things we struggle with in Nevada, is easy access to services."

The problem isn't limited to Nevada however, as across the country, resources for children with diagnosed mental disorders remains inadequate. Left untreated, mental disorders have a disastrous impact on children's ability to build relationships, can disrupt their progress in the classroom, and impacts their physical health.

The gap in treatment can be explained by a number of factors. Primarily though, the responsibility of providing mental health treatment lies in the hands of schools, many of which are ill equipped to help.

Teachers often spend more time with students than their parents do, and are in the best position to spot any sudden changes in mood, performance, or behavior. But many teachers do not feel as though they have the mental health training necessary, nor the time, to be able to properly help their students.

Those most qualified to help students manage their mental health are stretched even more thin than teachers are. Counselors, psychologists, and nurses work with hundreds of students throughout the week, if their school district employs them at all. Counseling and health services are typically among the first to be cut when budgets get tight.

Even when counselors, psychologists, and nurses are present, however, connecting parents and students with community resources is often difficult, as they are beholden to the community supports already in place.

Recognizing this, some states have put plans into action in order to better meet the needs of the students in their communities. Nevada, for example, has partnered with the University of Nevada, Reno in implementing a system entitled "systems of care."

"This model is really important because it requires states to develop a system that includes parents and caregivers in decisions about their children's needs and being at the table in those discussions," says UNR Social Work professor Jill Manit when describing the program she helped establish in Nevada. "It's also based on the community and it asks that service providers come together to coordinate the services for children and families so that those families...don't have to figure it out on their own. Finally, the model requires that states meet the cultural and linguistic needs of the families in their state."

This integrative approach to student care is especially effective, because in states like Nevada, many of the families who seek help come from marginalized and vulnerable populations who face poverty, prejudice, and discrimination. By combining community resources, various agencies will be able to help students with a wide range of issues, allowing children to better function at home, at school, and in their communities.

It's clear that integrative approaches like this ought to be adopted in communities around the country. Ideally, teachers, counselors, and other school administrators would have the proper training to assess and recommend outside resources for students. But until mental health is taken more seriously in America, it's likely that the demand on educators will remain too high to make any real difference in children's mental health.

We're all aware that mental health screening and treatment is important, but at the same time, it's one of the last things we as a society pay attention to. For the benefit of adults and children alike, mental health care reform should be a top priority.

Posted by DanikaK at September 15, 2016 5:53 PM
Comment #407494

It certainly shouldn’t be in the hands of teachers. Who knows, maybe teachers are causing the mental health issues in children ages 5 to 18. If they spend more time with teachers than with their parents it’s an aspect that needs discussing.

Posted by: Weary Willie at September 15, 2016 6:38 PM
Comment #407500

Mental illnesses still require consent for treatment. If a person is bipolar, for example, they may be willing to accept treatment if they are depressed, but unwilling to accept it if they are in a manic state. There is already concern about the extent to which our children are being medicated for behavioral problems. Some school districts segregate these children from the rest of the school population, so that they have little contact with any positive peer influence. It’s good that the Obama administration tries to do good things, but their opposition actually encourages and rewards behavior that would not be allowed in any school.

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I want to thank you for putting this article together. Although it lacks the horse-race aspects that generate a lot of comments, it is definitely a valuable contribution for WatchBlog.

Personally, I feel it is unwise to put schools in charge of managing the mental health of students. Public schools are not supposed to be substitutes for good parenting. I view the crisis in youth mental health as an extension of the ongoing parenting crisis. In particular, too many children are raised in situations other than a two parent nuclear family.

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