DeVos needs to focus on mental health in school-aged children
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Betsy DeVos' confirmation as our nation's Secretary of Education is an opportunity to remind policymakers that mental health and learning disorders are the most common health issues faced by school-aged children in the United States. Eighty percent of chronic psychiatric disorders like ADHD, anxiety and depression begin in childhood, and one in five children struggles with a learning disorder.

As we noted in our 2016 Children's Mental Health Report, emotional and behavioral problems can lead to frequent disciplinary measures, school avoidance, suspension and being left back.

Mental health and learning disorders also lead students to drop out of school entirely. And the consequences of school discipline problems down the road are serious: underemployment and unemployment, prison and reduced quality of life.

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The emotional and behavioral health of our children is a vital educational issue that is too often ignored — particularly when schools can have a powerful positive impact on children who struggle with these issues.

 

Schools should be  and can be identifying and supporting at-risk children. K-12 enrollment in the United States is around 55 million, providing our best chance to reach the 17.1 million young people who will be affected by mental health disorders before the age of 18. A widely deployed, integrated system of evidence-supported, school-based mental health and preventive services is needed. 

DeVos’ contentious journey to confirmation can be viewed in one unambiguously positive light: it shows that we all care very much about the healthy development of our children. Our schools nurture the social, emotional and intellectual growth of young Americans. Education brings out our strongest opinions because we know how powerful and necessary it is.

As an organization dedicated to helping young people with behavioral, emotional and learning challenges that too often limit their potential, we feel we must say, unambiguously, that all children deserve equal access to the protection and opportunity that education can provide.

This has been a crucial contribution of our federal government. Laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensure that our actions as a society follow the moral certainties we share: that no child be denied access to knowledge and opportunity because of their unique circumstance.

This means that we make school accessible to children who are sick, who have developmental disorders, to those with impaired mobility, and to those with mental health and learning disorders. We urge DeVos to continue this commitment. Accommodating students with mental health and learning disorders is not a states rights issue. This is the time to continue to lead nationally and improve the lives of children and families across the country.

Schools can become the prime driver behind improving the mental health of America’s children. But to do this, partnerships between educators and mental health professionals from the policy level on down to the individual child must be encouraged.

Families, teachers and professionals all need to work together so that school is accessible for all children to reach their full potential, and the full potential of schools to help children with mental health and learning disorders is realized and leveraged.

Elizabeth Planet is Executive Director of the Child Mind Institute, an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children struggling with mental health and learning disorders. She has spent nearly two decades in senior management roles in mission-driven organizations.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill