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Guest Commentary

An educator’s plea: We need mental health supports in schools

2/13/2013

I have been a teacher in central Iowa for 14 years; in that time I have taught classes for children with social and emotional issues. Those of us who teach in these classrooms are aware that we will be dealing with a variety of behavioral issues from students who are withdrawn to ones who are outwardly aggressive who have attacked other students and teachers.                

During my time in the classroom, I have had students wield staplers and tape dispensers at me while another attempted to attack me with scissors. The most challenging year of my career came when I had one student assault me more than 20 times in the course of the school year. I was kicked, punched, bitten, had my hair pulled and sexually assaulted. Each day I would go home physically and mentally exhausted.                

My story is not unique. I have had many other teachers share their stories and photographs of assaults from the hands of those they are trying to educate. A colleague of a friend was stabbed while pregnant and sent to the hospital. Another teacher indicated that a student has threatened to shoot her multiple times with the gun he has access to at home.                

We see many students with psychological issues that manifest themselves in other ways. I have countless teachers reporting students attempting suicidal behaviors at school such as wrapping belts around their necks or other self-harm behaviors. Multiple teachers and counselors have reported students with schizophrenia running away from school or unable to perform in classes because of voices insisting school is a bad place. Last year, one school reported more than 30 students receiving inpatient hospitalization for mental health issues.               

One out of every 10 children has a mental illness, yet fewer than 20 percent are being treated. Educators are trained to teach academics. We lack the appropriate therapeutic training some of our students need. The Des Moines metro schools used to have access to more programs such as Orchard Place’s Phoenix program and programs through the Des Moines Public Schools. However, many of these programs are no longer in existence, are now limited to the Des Moines School District or are filled to capacity. We have parents that desperately want their child seen, but they have to wait two months to get into visit with a mental health professional. We have students who show up at our mental health facilities with a police escort and parents wanting their child to be seen, yet they are still turned away due to lack of beds.                

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We did an informal survey of teachers, counselors and administrators across the state, and rural communities are understandably, in some instances, lacking the most resources. Some communities share one therapist for multiple cities, while some do not have any. There is great disparity across the state for which districts have access to what mental health resources. This is totally unacceptable.                

Our society cannot continue to think of mental illness as something to be hidden away and ignored. We have to remove the stigma that prevents people from getting adequate help and keeps our society from addressing it as we would for any other health care crisis. The ramifications of ignoring mental illness are far too dire and great to continue to turn a blind eye and hope that it extinguishes itself.                

The time has come for everyone to rise and unite to address mental health. This cannot be done without the collaboration of everyone from our state legislators, the Iowa Department of Education, mental health professionals, administrators, higher education, teachers, parents and our children. We need to have data collected, our educators need training, we need more access to mental health supports, we need a stronger partnership with mental health professionals, our future teachers need training and our community needs more mental health options for our children. We need more inpatient and day treatment facilities. We need more therapists working with schools and families to help parents more readily get access to supports. We need professionals training and consulting with schools.                

This is a long-term investment in our students and our communities. More than 65 percent of incarcerated children have a mental illness. The cost for early intervention and treatment is far less than incarceration. Approximately 50 percent of students living with an untreated mental illness drop out of school. Research shows that early intervention and treatment can be successful and minimize costs. The cost benefits are endless, and the benefit to society as a whole is beyond any price.                

Teachers cannot be afraid to tell their administrators what they face in their classrooms. State officials need to fund programs now. Prompt action will save money in the future, to say nothing of the lives it will change. As teachers we are in the front line of this battle for the children whose responsibility we are entrusted. We consider it a sacred duty to prepare our students to become happy and productive members of society, but we cannot fight this battle alone. CV

Jennifer Wells is a teacher, adjunct professor at Drake Univeristy and GDM NAMI board member. She has been lobbying with legislators for two years for mental health support in schools and created the grassroots movement of educators, parents and mental health professionals, http://www.facebook.com/GettingMentalHealthSupportsInSchools.

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