Yes, Our Kids Need Mental Health Screenings at School

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Every state across the country has a hearing and vision screening requirement for students as early as kindergarten and first grade. The trailer pulls into the parking lot, and classes take their turn putting on a pair of headphones and listening for the beep. Why is this mandated by law? Because health and education professionals, as well as just plain common sense, tell us that in order for children to be able to perform and succeed in school, they need healthy ears and eyes to do so. Yet, another important factor that is necessary in school success is often overlooked:

Mental health.

A new report, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, released data indicating 75 percent of grown adults who seek out mental health aid had a diagnosable condition when they were under the age of 18, meaning many suffered without treatment or even diagnosis well into adulthood. In fact, only about 25 percent of kids in the world’s wealthiest nations actually get treatment for their disorders. While the Centers for Disease Control developed “Learn the Signs, Act Early,” a whole campaign focused on helping childhood educators learn the signs of mental health disorders in children, at this point all they have to offer are some free handouts and an online training course that educators can complete on their own time. But it’s not good enough.

Dr. Mina Fazel, a child psychiatrist at the University of Oxford who led and published the new study, says:

“Mental illness often starts in adolescence but doesn’t end in adolescence: It is a life-long disorder. It is therefore essential to find innovative ways to approach treatment and to reach young people to maximize their academic, emotional, and social development, and schools are where children spend much of their time.”

Not only do kids spend a good portion of their day at school, it’s often in these environments outside of the consistencies and comforts of home and while interacting with other children where mental disorders are heightened, allowing educators to get a real-world glimpse into the signs of a possible disorder.  

Educators spend on average 6 to 7 hours a day with hundreds of children, allowing them a unique perspective that tops even the most diligent and watchful of parents. While the age-old saying that all children are different is in essence true, there are common threads of similar behavior and patterns that educators, often with years of observational experience, can identify. From there, educators can pinpoint children who display a-typical behavior, leading to an evaluation and possible intervention.

Right now, this report isn’t calling for a complete overhaul of our education system and a reallocation of dollars to help treat mental disorders in young children at school, although I’m sure that’s something that deserves thoughtful consideration. What it’s calling for, though, is some sort of mandate that would make screening for mental disorders as routine as hearing and vision screenings. While it’s fine and dandy for the CDC to urge educators to educate themselves on the signs of early mental disorders, the truth is, school systems and teachers are already overly taxed. While some schools are innovative and progressive, taking matters into their own hands to assess for mental health disorders without a federal mandate, too many kids will just continue to slip through the cracks. The health and well-being of the estimated 10 percent of children who suffer from a mental disorder are too important to continue to assess and treat with just some “free handouts.”

World Mental Health Day was last week. The World Health Organization (WHO), estimates that over 450 million people worldwide suffer from a mental illness, 350 million suffer from depression, and in the US, over 254 million prescriptions were written for antidepressants in 2010. While mental health disorders affect so many people, there is still great stigma identified with having a mental disorder. Nine in 10 people with a mental illness report facing stigma and discrimination because of their illness. Yes, children can be cruel, but they also have tremendous capacity for compassion.

While some parents face fears with standardized screening of mental health disorders, afraid that their own child may be bullied and mistreated if they are “labeled,” the only way to move beyond the stigma of mental disorders is if we start talking about them, start identifying and treating them properly, and educating each other about the facts of these disorders. Dr. Fazel reports that most children would rather seek treatment at school, where there’s a greater support system, than outside of school. Imagine trying to treat any other health problem like diabetes or asthma without a support system? And even beyond that, imagine suffering from one of those health problems, and not even feeling comfortable to talk about it to anyone?

We need to change that, and one way we can do that is by making mental health such a priority in this country that we screen for it at school, talk about it, and perhaps even treat it there. At the very least, we need to be open enough to accept the simple fact that 1 in 10 children suffers from a condition that is for the most part, very treatable and manageable.

It’s time to open up our eyes and ears to the world of mental health, and give our educators and the school system, where most of our kids spend a large chunk of their day, the tools necessary to help them help our children.

Do you think schools should be screening for mental disorders, or do you think that is the parent’s responsibility?

Image courtesy of Thinkstock

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