Why Principals Need to Make Student Mental Health a Priority

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student mental health
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Within the first eight days of school this year, three students in a suburban district East of Los Angeles killed themselves.

None of the deaths were related—the students had been from different schools, in different grades, and didn’t appear to know one another.

But the quick succession of suicides left the community reeling.

“I’m not sure how to explain that, it’s a punch to your gut. It’s just absolutely unbelievable,” said Mat Holton, the superintendent of the Chaffey Joint Union High School District. “But as a superintendent or a principal, you have to move into the mode of OK, what is our next step? How do we best help the kids? And you just move right into crisis mode.” Takeaways for Principals

Here’s what principals can do to support students’ mental health:

• Provide basic mental-health support to all students, including universal screening for depression

• Advocate for mental-health professionals to work in your buildings, including school psychologists

Offer education to parents and students about types of mental-health issues and effective treatment

Crisis mode meant deploying a school psychologist, a psychiatric therapist, and a counselor to each of the schools where the deceased students attended.

But it has been the principals of those schools who’ve taken on the most difficult role since the students’ deaths.

In each case, principals immediately called the families of the students who died to offer condolences and to express ongoing support for them. They hung out in the classrooms to do what Holton calls the “empty chair” exercise. While acknowledging the vacant seat the deceased student was assigned to, the principals invited classmates to share their memories, emotions, and questions.

“It’s really important in my philosophy that principals are out there leading this. The kids know them,” Holton said. “In scenarios like this, kids are looking to that leader.”

Rise of Mental-Health Needs

The tragedy in Chaffey Joint Union represents the most extreme manifestation of a growing problem in schools: the rise of mental-health needs among students.

An estimated 32 percent of adolescents have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Twelve percent of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 say they have experienced one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

The suicide rate among teenagers has been steadily on the rise since 2007. It’s gone up 30 percent among 15- to 19-year-old boys and doubled among girls, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the second leading cause of death in that age group.

But schools have had limited resources and expertise to deal with the wide range of mental-health needs that children and youth are now experiencing.

“If you look at education reform over the past decade—it’s all been about achievement,” said William Wong, the principal of Coolidge Elementary, a school in San Gabriel, Calif. “But there’s another crisis brewing: it’s mental health.”

And principals are on the front lines of that crisis.

Just 20 percent of students diagnosed with mental disorders receive mental-health services, said Stephen Brock, a professor and school psychology program coordinator at California State University, Sacramento. And of those who do, the vast majority receive services from their school, said Brock, who formerly served as a president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

“Ninety percent of our nation’s youth will go to a public school. It can be a very powerful resource for identifying and serving kids with mental-health challenges,” said Brock.

But one of the biggest obstacles facing schools as they scramble to help students struggling with anxiety, depression, or even suicidal ideation, is that the country is facing a shortage of school psychologists. . . .

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