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SCHOOLS MUST TAKE INTEREST
IN STUDENTS' MENTAL HEALTH

In January, the surgeon general released a sobering report on the status of children's mental health. It noted that one in 10 children suffers from a mental illness, with less than 20 percent receiving help.

One reason is lack of adequately trained people to identify and assess mental illness in children. This report indicates our educational system needs to take a more proactive role in this typically gray area.

As a school social worker, I work with young people and their families and witness, firsthand, these crises. More and more students appear to be buckling under the ever-increasing academic, social, family and personal pressures they face on a daily basis. These pressures often exacerbate the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, as students lose their ability to cope.

When 14-year-old Derek (not his real name) comes to see me because he is having a tough day, it's no wonder! His father is long gone, his mom works two jobs and his 16-year-old sister left home, leaving Derek to watch over his younger brothers.

His teachers say that if he doesn't focus more on schoolwork, he will fail. It's no wonder he has anxiety problems; he's lucky he makes it to school.

Many youngsters are trying to hold it together on their own. They are resistant to outside help because they fear their "parents will be angry" or they will be "put into the hospital."

Usually when a child lashes out at himself or others, he has already reached a crisis point. So how do we intervene before kids reach the breaking point? It falls, I believe, primarily into the laps of family members and schools to identify children "at risk." Family members need to be aware of changes in their children, listen to their concerns and not be afraid to seek confidential, professional help.

And in cases where there is no family support, a child's only hope is that some caring, aware individual at school may notice the changes -- the hurting, the internal/external crying-out -- and bring it to the attention of the proper staff member.

I urge school districts to take the mental health initiative seriously. Most have argued that they do not have enough staff trained to identify or assess mental health problems before they turn into a crisis. Others say that schools don't belong in the mental health business.

Yes, there are a few pioneering districts, such as Sweet Home, that have brought family support counseling into the schools. Bravo. Pembroke recently hired a school social worker primarily to provide vital prevention programming and assist other school professionals in the identification, assessment and referral process.

The overall goal is for schools to have the capability to link students and families with mental health providers and allow follow-up support.

What can you do? Go to school board meetings and talk to administrators. Let them know that students' mental health is just as important as Regents scores. Ask them to seek grants and funding for prevention programs, social workers, counselors and staff training.

Anything that impairs a child's mental ability to function should be addressed as early as possible to ensure the best possible outcome. And, like it or not, schools are reluctantly positioned to be instrumental in the success or failure of professional intervention at a critical time in a troubled child's life.

KEVIN FRITZ is a school social worker at Pembroke Central Schools.

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