02 03 Notes from the School Psychologist: The Politics of Mental Health 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

The Politics of Mental Health

Per my Sunday morning ritual, hubby and I watch Meet the Press and This Week while sipping coffee and eating waffles. In some ways, it’s a relaxing ritual, in other ways it is the opposite of relaxing. Today was one of those not-so-relaxing days. The coverage is all about the tragedy in Tuscon and I have gone between crying (the picture of 9 year old girl who was killed gets me every single time) and being enraged. I have also been encouraged that the pundits are actually talking about mental health issues. Mostly though, like many things in my life, I filter all information through my school psychologist lens.

I see kids all the time that could grow up to be Jared Lee Loughners. I can see them in elementary school. Their problems become more pronounced in middle school. In high school, they are often hidden in the crowd, or check out of attending school altogether. As a school psychologist, I have counseled kids who have witnessed shootings. I have counseled a teacher who was held up at gunpoint out front of our elementary school. I have pleaded with parents to take their child to a psychiatrist because of the danger to themselves or others. I have confiscated guns and knives from the backpacks of children. I even worked with a kid who later ended up murdering someone. And I have involuntarily committed children and adolescents who I knew posed an imminent threat.

Identifying troubled students is easy. Providing them resources and follow up care is hard. So often I sit at support staff meetings and the list of students who need counseling is far greater than our resources. I only have time to counsel about 5-10 students a year with my current case load. Many students are referred out to agencies, but the follow through by the families is often poor. The average ratio of school psychologists to students at last measure in 2000 was 1:1500, with the median being 1:2500. In some cases, it’s 1:5000. What can we do when we have thousands of kids we are responsible for and we are likely on a school site only one or two days a week?

I can’t imagine that Jared wasn’t ever referred for help in secondary school. Even if he had a late onset of mental illness, the community college certainly was aware of his needs. But like K-12 education, community colleges don’t have mental health resources either. Our new California governor’s budget protected K-12 to some degree, but slashed post-secondary education. Schools are the access point for so many students in need. Imagine if we had the resources to serve students with mental health needs. Could adequate mental health services have prevented this shooting? Unknown. Could it have lessened the chances? Probably.

I should note that predicting who will become a violent offender is a difficult business. It is especially hard to predict because of the rareness of the events. Statistically speaking, rare events are harder to predict (earthquakes, anyone?). There are far more students in need of mental health services that are not going to go on to shooting innocent people if they don’t get help. But they will go on to suffer. What matters to me most is preventing suffering. Mental health issues are still thought of as personal weakness in our society, and something to be ashamed to admit. We need to start a national conversation about how it takes personal strength to seek help. We need to recognize the connection between mental health and education. If you are not well emotionally, you are not ready to learn.

As I watch the media coverage in the aftermath of the tragedy, I can only hope it sheds some light on the real issue underlying the tragedy—that our education and mental health systems are in need of support. While I’m only one school psychologist in a big district, big country, big world, I know that if there were more mental health providers helping me reach troubled students, we could make a real difference.

The real challenge is for politicians to stop talking and start acting. Reverend Al Sharpton hit the nail on the head today on Meet the Press. He said that Martin Luther King, Jr. had concrete goals and legislation in addition to his overall civil rights beliefs. Without concrete, tangible goals, he would have only been a dreamer. I’m just left here, with my empty coffee mug and dreams of adequate mental health services in the schools, wondering what I can do next.

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