Map of depression-related feelings reported by students, by county.

Depression-related feelings reported by students, by county. Source: California Department of Education, California Healthy Kids Survey. (Click to enlarge)

Teachers should be trained on how to identify and respond to mental health problems they are likely to encounter among their students, a high level group of educators and mental health experts is recommending.

A 35-member Student Mental Health Policy Workgroup, convened in 2012 by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, is hoping that its recommendation will gain traction this summer when the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing takes up a slew of reforms on various aspects of teacher preparation in August. “Research indicates that teachers feel they lack the training needed for supporting children’s mental health needs,” the work group group said in a statement. The group cited a 2011 study in the research journal School Psychology Quarterly that found that only 34 percent of teachers surveyed felt they had the skills they needed to identify and find help for students with mental health needs.

“We feel this is a crying need in California credentialing programs,” said David Kopperud, a consultant in the State Department of Education who chairs the work group. “This is something school administrators and teachers run into frequently – depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues – and yet they are not trained to handle situations like these.”

The call resonates with a request by President Barack Obama earlier this month at the administration’s National Conference on Mental Heath, when he asked teachers to help identify mental health disorders in students. At the conference, 40 organizations, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, pledged to provide some training in recognizing mental health issues to teachers, administrators, staff, students and families.

Unmet needs

According to the 2008-2010 statewide California Healthy Kids Survey, thousands of students with emotional disorders, including clinical depression, chronic anxiety and post-traumatic stress, sit in California classrooms each year, posing a widespread challenge to teachers’ and administrators’ efforts to improve academic outcomes. In  2011, California children between the ages 5 to 19 were hospitalized for mental health issues more than 35,000 times.

One in three California students in seventh, ninth and eleventh grades reported feeling so sad and hopeless for most days over two weeks or more that they stopped doing some usual activities, according to the 2008-2010 statewide California Healthy Kids Survey, developed for the state Department of Education by WestEd, an education research organization.

“We see it all – clinical depression, panic disorder, eating disorders in both sexes, hallucinating that is auditory or visual, post-traumatic stress,” said Susan Kitchell, a high school nurse in the San Francisco Unified School District. “Our biggest issue is capacity. We have 2,100 kids in our school  and one full-time nurse, one full-time mental health counselor, two half-time counselors, and interns.”

“The issues most frequently coming through my door are depression and anxiety,” said Stephanie Haluck, a school psychologist in the Campbell Union High School District.

In the past year, she said she provided grief counseling to students, faculty and parents after a student committed suicide, ate lunch regularly with a student who had been hospitalized with an eating disorder, and helped a student who was re-entering school after being hospitalized for attempted suicide. But she said there were many more students who could have used mental health support.

Resources for student mental health prevention and treatment vary from tremendously from school to school. The majority are unable to provide enough services to meet demand, advocates say. “Given the budget cuts, schools now have to decide whether to hire an assistant principal, an instructional aide, a librarian or a social worker,” said Pia Escudero, director of Los Angeles Unified School District’s School Mental Health Crisis Counseling Services. “The choices schools have to make really push mental health services to last place, almost like a luxury.”

Fewer than half of all students with mental health disorders are likely to receive any sort of treatment, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The children’s mental health system is as fragile as the at-risk youth it is intended to serve,” said Julia Graham Lear, a founder of the George Washington University Center for Health and Health Care in Schools.

Without adequate mental health services in schools, the burden falls on teachers, said Rusty Selix, executive director of the Mental Health Association in California, who is a member of Torlakson’s work group. The teachers themselves need more support, he said. “There ought to be a system where teachers can tell someone, a counselor or a principal, so the kids can get care – and we know that the care should be available on campus,” he said.

Start with teachers

Source: California Department of Education, California Healthy Kids Survey.

Source: California Department of Education, California Healthy Kids Survey.

The first step, said Kopperud, is to help teachers recognize mental health disorders when they see them. He cited a recent incident in which a school coach, who was frustrated that a student was emaciated, stood over her at lunchtime to make sure she ate. The student, who suffers from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, then threw up her lunch in the bathroom. The coach had her suspended, said Kopperud.

“He had never heard of anorexia nervosa,” said Kopperud, who also serves as chair of the State School Attendance Review Board, which makes recommendations about attendance-related services. “He thought she was being defiant.”

Serena Clayton, executive director of the California School Health Centers Association, said that because the work group does not have any power to affect change on its own in teacher and principal credentialing, much will depend on how actively Torlakson promotes its agenda. Said Clayton, “Torlakson is going to have to be a vocal advocate — and bring other advocates on board.”




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  1. el 5 years ago5 years ago

    Teachers are already incredibly busy. Training them to do Yet One More Thing - not just once, but it seems like every year - because we are too cheap to install the proper resources isn't fair to teachers and it's not serving the kids. I am appalled and surprised that a coach wouldn't know about anorexia, but I can't blame that on teacher training programs. I'm even more appalled that he was successful in getting her … Read More

    Teachers are already incredibly busy. Training them to do Yet One More Thing – not just once, but it seems like every year – because we are too cheap to install the proper resources isn’t fair to teachers and it’s not serving the kids.

    I am appalled and surprised that a coach wouldn’t know about anorexia, but I can’t blame that on teacher training programs. I’m even more appalled that he was successful in getting her suspended for it – which would have involved, I guess, multiple clueless adults and multiple systemic failures.

    What we need are dedicated mental health staff for every school, at a ratio appropriate to the population of those schools. They are the people who should work with teachers to educate them about the issues found amongst the students at that school, and who should help lead teamwork and anti-bullying efforts for the school.