President Obama calls on teachers to help identify mental health disorders in students

President Obama

President Obama speaking at Newton, Conn., in December 2012 following the deadly school shooting.

President Barack Obama on Monday asked teachers to help identify and seek help for children who are suffering from mental health disorders, saying that it was time to bring “mental illness out of the shadows.”

More than 75 percent of mental illnesses, including depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa, emerge when children are school-aged or young adults, Obama noted. But he said that only about half of children who need mental health treatment receive it. The untreated disorders can lead to poor academic performance, behavioral issues in the classroom, social isolation at school, and in the most extreme cases, suicide and violence.

Obama pledged to launch a “national conversation” on mental health after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December. On Monday, he sought to refute the notion that people who suffer from depression or other mental illness are to be feared.

“I want to be absolutely clear: The overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent,” Obama said in his opening remarks at the National Conference on Mental Health, held at the White House. “But we also know that most suicides each year involve someone with a mental health or substance abuse disorder. And in some cases, when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale.”

He added, “We’ve got to do a better job recognizing mental health issues in our children and making it easier for Americans of all ages to seek help.” As one step, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced the launch of a new government website,, to provide information and resources about mental illnesses.

Christine Toleson, president-elect of the California Association of School Psychologists, applauded the effort. “You need to increase the awareness of teachers, because they are part of the team working with the student,” said Toleson, a school psychologist for foster youth in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “What is the teacher’s buy-in for mental health? Some teachers would say ‘I didn’t sign up to be a counselor,’ but it is crucial that teachers have training in all these different domains.”

Teachers are on the front lines in identifying children who need mental health care. President Obama’s proposed budget for 2014 would allocate $205 million for mental health programs, including training teachers to recognize signs of mental illness, and implementing programs to improve school climate and well-being for all students.

But even without that funding, Obama noted that more than 40 organizations, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, have pledged to educate teachers, administrators, staff, students and families about mental health issues. According to the White House conference organizers, the National Association of Secondary School Principals has called on its 25,000 members, middle and high school principals and assistant principals from across the country, to hold school assemblies on mental health awareness by the end of 2013. To help principals conduct effective assemblies, the School Social Work Association of America, American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists will develop online resources, including discussion topics and activities related to mental health awareness.

The conference included mental health awareness initiatives such as MTV’s Half of Us website, which features celebrities such as singer Mary J. Bilge and actor Vinny Guadagnino talking about their struggles with depression and anxiety. In addition, actor Bradley Cooper spoke about how he gained awareness of bipolar disorder by playing a character in the film “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Amy Smith, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, asked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the White House conference if there was a plan to increase the number of school psychologists. Duncan said that funding depended on passage of the president’s budget and decisions made by school districts themselves. “My hope in asking the question was to put the issue on the table,” Smith said in a later interview. “We can’t forget that children are at school all day long. If we can increase the number of providers (of mental health services), we can drastically impact the number of children who need services who will get them.”

Smith said her group advocates a ratio of one school psychologist for every 700 students. While unable to accurately estimate the current ratio of students to school psychologists, she said, “Typically, the ratio is much higher than that.”

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12 Responses to “President Obama calls on teachers to help identify mental health disorders in students”

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  1. ms. mary claire on Jan 5, 2014 at 6:17 pm01/5/2014 6:17 pm

    • 000

    Who will assess the mental wellness if teacher? We are so busy looking at the fruit the issue is the root. Adults create the climate. If we are so busy screening,assessing and now diagnosing. No wonder John, I mean Jose can’t read!!! We are so educated American have become ignorant!

  2. Evan on Jun 4, 2013 at 3:31 pm06/4/2013 3:31 pm

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    Scary to think some teachers will be saying, “your son/daughter is having problems NOT because of my lack of teaching skills but because I took a three day seminar and I can tell you that it is apparent that he/she is bi-polar, depressed or whatever mental illness”. Bet the pharmaceutical companies love this. Too many psychiatrists have a hard enough time diagnosing. My son spent 15 minutes with one at the age of 18 because he had some anxiety. In that amount of time he was diagnosed with ADD. He was given a med that caused psychosis, then because of that side effect, was diagnosed as schizophrenic! His current Dr. Says he should have never been on ANY medication. It ruined several years of his life and you cannot remove it from your medical records. I have friends and close family members that are teachers and from what I get is that they are challenged enough in time and resources to do the basic job at hand. Now they want them to become pseudo shrinks?

  3. Bruce William Smith on Jun 4, 2013 at 1:50 pm06/4/2013 1:50 pm

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    The teacher’s role in this matter would be properly confined to detection of abnormalities, which is already standard practice with regard to detecting signs of child abuse, such as unusual bruising or behaviour. There is no plausible demand being made for teachers to be especially active in counselling the mentally ill, nor does the president’s call imply a hiring campaign for school-based psychologists. The basic plan of action is detection, referral, and treatment, which need not take place at the school site. While primary school teachers are already naturally sensitive to the emotional development of their students, secondary school subject specialists may not be as aware of their students’ emotional states as we might wish, so a newly organized approach to this problem, such as assigning each student a faculty advisor charged with staying in contact with that student on a more personal basis than is customary in subject classrooms, is well called for.


    • el on Jun 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm06/4/2013 1:53 pm

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      But referral where? Those services have been gutted at both the school and county level.

      • Bruce William Smith on Jun 5, 2013 at 11:25 am06/5/2013 11:25 am

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        I favour restoring them at the county level; and when revenues become available, to a greater extent than at any time in the past. In reality, this latter point might take a while, since the federal government’s fiscal house is distinctly out of order, and needs reordering before it can afford to help out more local levels. But some states are recovering, and should be able to make progress in funding restored services; and some cities are also well enough off to contribute. Our schools in general are not well positioned to take on paying for any increased health services, and their inclusion on school campuses is inconsistent with the schools’ core competences, and either distracts school management or results in poor health office oversight.

        • el on Jun 5, 2013 at 6:06 pm06/5/2013 6:06 pm

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          It’s worth remembering that in rural areas, the county seat – which is where most county services are kept – can be infeasibly far, hours even, from any particular school.

          I’m not advocating here, only reminding that the state of California encompasses quite a range of local logistics and realities.

    • Paul on Jun 4, 2013 at 2:21 pm06/4/2013 2:21 pm

      • 000

      And very honestly, Bruce, who is going to pay me for time spent on “personal contact” with 150-210 middle or high school students, let alone reduce my other duties to leave enough waking hours for that? Ideas like yours sound innocent enough when written down, but they do not match the real capacities of our education system.

      • Bruce William Smith on Jun 5, 2013 at 11:32 am06/5/2013 11:32 am

        • 000

        The education system’s potential capacity for this system is real, but it requires sending a vastly greater proportion of our currently available school funding to school sites, rather than allowing it to be eaten up by central offices. The work of William Ouchi is critical to making this case. His “Making Schools Work” helped inspire our teachers’ revolt at Locke High School in 2007, and his more recent work, “The Secret of TSL*” (“TSL” here stands for “Total Student Load”), demonstrates that districts that focus on reducing each teacher’s total student load achieve improvements for their students faster than those pursuing any other strategy. If you were caring for half of your current load of students, you could find time to get to know your students better and to make an occasional, necessary referral.

        • Manuel on Jun 5, 2013 at 5:53 pm06/5/2013 5:53 pm

          • 000

          How’s that teacher’s revolt working out?

          Last I heard, there were calls to take over the feeder middle schools because Locke’s many “cells” can’t improve on the incoming product, excuse me, children.

          Oh, wait. You are no longer at Locke, right? It seems that you have been trying to set up a school called “One World” for a while now, correct? I guess the location in the Gardena/Carson/South Bay area did not work out back in 2009 and now you are trying to set up a “Lyceum,” not a school in Irvine. So maybe your ideas are not as applicable in the real world and Paul is right…

  4. Paul on Jun 4, 2013 at 5:50 am06/4/2013 5:50 am

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    Well said, el.

    I will add that most teachers do not have degrees or specific coursework in psychology, but that Obama and Duncan strongly oppose the practice of compensating teachers for advanced degrees or extra training.

  5. el on Jun 4, 2013 at 12:04 am06/4/2013 12:04 am

    • 000

    Has anyone mentioned to Obama that because of his administration’s policies, that several states are creating standardized tests to give to kindergarteners so people can decide whether to fire their teachers?

    This is a policy directly at odds with positive mental health for both kids and teachers. It is poison for school climate, for stability, and for well-being of staff and students.

  6. el on Jun 3, 2013 at 11:25 pm06/3/2013 11:25 pm

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    Will teachers be evaluated based on their value-add to student mental health?

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