Make student mental health a priority

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Mentzinger

Mentzinger

The decision by the City of Chicago to close six mental health clinics has stirred concern and anger among families, advocates, and over-stretched health care professionals in many parts of the city. Yet, as people adjust to the city’s new landscape for mental health care, Mayor Rahm Emanuel insists that the closings are not at the expense of service. He has said that he remains committed to giving more service to more people.

These must include the city’s public school children, for whom the need for mental health services grows as the gap in available programs widens. In fact, mental health services – ranging from anger management and self-esteem to grief and loss counseling – are among school leaders’ top priorities for supporting students, according to data from Communities In Schools of Chicago (CISC). Of the 159 schools that belong to the CISC network, 105 schools – or 64% – have identified mental health services as one of their top three priorities, just behind health education and violence prevention education.

In a new report, The Mental Health Supports Gap for CPS Students, CISC set out to understand the level of concern in Chicago Public Schools among principals, case workers and teachers by surveying 147 school leaders.  We learned that there is a growing need for more mental health programs, but a significant gap of resources available – from highly trained in-school personnel to community organizations – to meet the need. Further, we found that mental health issues are taking their toll on students, families and the schools themselves:

  • 70% of survey respondents said that half or more of their students need mental health services addressing self-esteem.

  • Nearly 54% of respondents said that half or more of their students need mental health services addressing anger management.

The fallout on classroom behavior and student achievement is significant. Nearly 80% of those surveyed feel that mental health issues are having a larger impact on classes than three years ago. As one school official told us, “Students are unable to resolve conflicts without fighting. Fighting leads to other problems, which take valuable time away from instruction.” Just as troubling: nearly 60% in the survey believe mental health issues have a moderate to major impact on student absenteeism.

There is some encouraging news to be drawn from the survey results. School leaders increasingly are aware of the importance of connecting students with mental health programs and counselors: indeed, 59% said schools are providing more programming than three years ago through service providers ranging from anti-bullying organizations to hospitals and social service agencies. The most commonly sought programs include self-esteem, anger management and individual and group counseling.

Partnerships make a difference

Even more hopeful is the feedback we hear from community partners and schools that work together in our network. At Salmon P. Chase Elementary, for example, there is longstanding support for children who may face family or peer issues. “From our principal to all of the teachers, we have a whole-child perspective,” says Melissa Swartz, the Chase school counselor. When Communities In Schools of Chicago learned that Chase wanted to develop a program addressing self-esteem among seventh- and eighth-grade girls, our organization connected the school to Studio for Change, a therapy practice in our network that could design an 11-week program well suited for the school.  Their partnership is now in its second year, and their mutual commitment to students is strong.  “Chase is a school that really gets mental health programming hands down,” says Debra Steele, the therapist who runs the program for Studio for Change.

The connections at Chase and other schools are examples of what’s possible through partnerships with community-based organizations – particularly because the logistics of delivering mental health services can be challenging.  Mental health support is labor-intensive and highly sensitive, usually requiring small-group settings and specialized practitioners with advanced degrees. CPS personnel are often stretched thin, and school counselors and social workers, in particular, carry heavy workloads. It is clear that community partnerships are an important benefit to schools that have identified students’ mental health as a priority.

As more schools recognize mental health needs as a higher priority, resources will need to be expanded through community and professional partnerships. Nearly 60% of respondents in our survey report that they have partnerships with one or more organizations providing mental health counseling. We must become even more creative in developing ways to support students and to educate parents on their children’s needs – and by we, I mean nonprofit agencies, government agencies, mental health providers and school leaders. There is a role for each of us to play in closing the gap to support students.

Jane Mentzinger is executive director of Communities in Schools of Chicago.