Tens of thousands of students miss out on education and increase their risk for unemployment, prison, and an early death because of our failure to value and encourage mental health at the same level as academic success in our schools. This has to change. We must realize that schools present us with a crucial opportunity to intervene early and help kids get and stay on track.
It may take a shakeup to fix the inaction that allows mental health disorders to be barriers to education. The statistics are sobering: Among our most at-risk students, dropout rates approach 40%, according to the 2016 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report Zero tolerance policies have inflated suspension and expulsion rates for children who have trouble regulating emotions and behavior.
Failure in school carries a steep price. High-school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be jailed than four-year college graduates. 68% of state prison inmates have not completed high school. These trends disproportionately affect children with mental health and learning disorders — 70.4% of youth in the juvenile justice system meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis.
Schools also offer a solution. They are the most promising setting for early recognition of mental health problems in children. Schools are where teachers’ insight into childhood behavior can be supported by evidence-based mental health programs. Schools are where children and families can be educated about managing emotions, channeling behavior and making plans for success.
Mental health promotion in schools starts with prevention and early intervention. We take it as a matter of course that our children receive preventative eye and ear testing. Why not have mental health testing to learn if there might be an area of concern before it becomes a chronic problem?
Corporations with an interest in a productive workforce routinely promote good health with benefits from gym memberships to flu shots. Why not take the same approach in schools? Embrace prevention and promotion programs that have lasting effects on emotional functioning and school achievement, starting with our youngest students. Training grammar school teachers in simple behavioral programs can set the stage for success and help children avoid risk.
Other interventions are aimed at transforming the entire school climate and reducing the focus on punitive discipline. It is a simple but revolutionary realization: if schools actively try for alternatives to suspension and expulsion, the culture can change and all kids can reap the benefits of staying in the classroom.
Finally, schools are a promising and emerging location for clinical services and the specific treatment of all-too-common mental health disorders such as PTSD and depression. These interventions can be incredibly effective in reducing symptoms, which can include emotional outbursts and disruptive behavior. But perhaps most heartening is what happens when kids know help is available: they seek it out, and utilization increases dramatically.
Our laws already give children the right to an education and the support they need to overcome the barriers in their way. Now we need to teach schools how to identify and help children early, when that support is most effective — and before mental health disorders become discipline problems and feed the school-to-prison pipeline.
Our national focus should be on making sure these kids don’t fly under the radar — just like we make sure to identify children with poor eyesight or hearing that would get in the way of their education. Our candidates for elected office should be talking about how, with a commitment to understanding the brain, we can help so many people of any age struggling with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Let’s demand that our cities, states and the entire country be committed to the emotional and behavioral health of our children. We have the knowledge and the innovative systems to make this happen; now is the time to cultivate the will.
Dr. Harold Koplewicz is president of the non-profit Child Mind Institute in New York.