One in 5 children in the United States show signs of a mental health condition. In a class of 25 students, it’s likely that five of them will deal with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders or other adverse childhood experiences that make learning a serious challenge.
Most children – almost 80 percent – don’t get the mental health services they need. The professionals who are best trained to help are in short supply. The average school nurse is responsible for more than 1,000 students. A typical school psychologist divides her time among 1,400 students.
Nothing is more important to us, as parents, advocates and practitioners, than ensuring all children have the opportunity to thrive physically, mentally and emotionally.
That is why, together with other parents, educators and mental health professionals, The Kennedy Forum has developed a framework for building a comprehensive, integrated system to improve mental health services for children and adolescents across our country — some 74 million young people.
The research is clear that a community-based approach is most effective. School systems, as the center of community life and the place where children spend most of their time outside the home, are therefore the ideal locations to meet the mental health needs of children and teenagers. The system we need would be organized around five core principles.
First, schools and community mental health programs should develop partnerships, if they are not yet collaborating. These partnerships reduce the possibility of a child’s mental health symptoms going unnoticed, which often occurs if different caregivers don’t have a system in place to communicate with each other.
Second, schools should develop evidence-based prevention and intervention programs. We recognize that this is easier said than done when schools have limited resources and must react to the most urgent cases. But all students benefit when social and emotional learning, resiliency and brain fitness programs are added to the curriculum. It’s never too early to teach children about the ways they can keep their brains healthy, including mindfulness, yoga and technology.
Third, universal screenings for mental health conditions must become as common in schools as the current screenings for vision, hearing and academic impairments. Screenings would be followed by referrals to services and ongoing monitoring that respects students’ confidentiality. The earlier we can identify social, emotional or behavioral difficulties, the sooner we can provide evidence-based interventions and prevent both acute and chronic conditions.
Fourth, we must provide teachers with high-quality, meaningful professional development on students’ mental health needs. Teacher training programs should include more information about child and adolescent mental health, the impact of trauma on learning, skills to de-escalate conflicts and ways to incorporate mindfulness into teaching practices. We know that half of those who will develop mental health disorders show symptoms by age 14. Programs like Mental Health First Aid teach educators how to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health problems in America’s youth and how to provide age-appropriate help and support early.
Fifth, student mental health must be recognized as mission critical and adequately funded. Parents, teachers and community mental health professionals must join to advocate for greater state and federal funding of children’s mental health programs. There is no silver bullet, but school districts should also look for ways to support these programs when public funds are not available, such as partnering with local universities on grant opportunities. We already know the price of doing nothing: more needless loss of life to suicide and accidental overdose.
We are committed to doing everything in our power to make sure that the mental health needs of our nation’s children are addressed with the same urgency as their physical health needs. We want all children to grow up in a world that is free of stigma and shame about mental health conditions.
If we build a movement around this vision, the next generation will be as comfortable getting treatment for bipolar disorder as they are for a sports injury. They will be as unashamed about taking medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder as they are about using insulin to control juvenile diabetes.
Our parents’ generation suffered in silence with depression, alcoholism and too many other struggles. Our children’s generation can become the first to have universal access to treatment for mental health conditions. Every child deserves to enjoy a life of love and relationships, of contribution and meaning. Let’s make it so.
Patrick J. Kennedy is the author of The New York Times best-seller “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.” Linda Rosenberg, MSW, is the president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health.