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

June 3, 2013

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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, mentalhealth.gov, 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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