Mental Health in Public Schools

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the Superintendent of an economically distressed and subsequently dysfunctional school district in an urban center in NE Ohio. We were talking about the Report on the State of Mental Health in Public Schools published in 2006 by Dr. Howard Adlemen and Dr.  Linda Taylor from the University of California, Los Angeles’ Department of Psychology

The article certainly resonated with this superintendent, but it addresses the issues I have found in many schools across the country. My conversations with teachers, superintendents and nonprofit leaders all agree that in urban, suburban and rural schools, undiagnosed mental and emotional maladies are not adequately addressed. In the absence of integrated approach to mental – or even family health, the Carnegie Task Force on Education stresses,

“School systems are not responsible for meeting every need of their students. But when the need directly affects learning, the school must meet the challenge.” The writers are careful to make distinctions between external factors and individual disorders.

External factors are things such as neighborhood, family, school and/or peer factors such as extreme deprivation, community disorganization, high levels of mobility, drugs, violence, poor quality or abusive caretaking, poor quality schools, negative encounters with peers, inappropriate peer models, immigration status, etc.”

Individual disorders often are not diagnosed or screened and are attributed to developmental and motivational differences (e.g. medical problems, low birthweight/neurodevelopmental delay, psychophysiological problems, difficult temperament, adjustment problems etc.)”

Too often, discussion about improving the quality of challenged schools addresses the external factors but I think districts might need help with the latter. There needs to be a closer collaboration between the central offices of the departments of education and the public and mental health agencies. Philanthropy can have an important role facilitating those conversations.

A related article by the Children’s Defense Fund titled, “Cradle to Prison Pipeline: an American Crisis.”  addresses the social consequences of public health officials and school leaders lacking creative solutions to the challenge of external and internal health problems in schools.

I encourage everyone in this blog and perhaps the community to read it.

“Suppose that during the next decade, a quarter of all the children born in New York, North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, Ohio, and Pennsylvania were infected by a virulent new strain of polio or tuberculosis sometime during their youth. Clearly, our response to a health crisis affecting that many children would be to mobilize the nation’s vast public health resources. Medical laboratories would operate around the clock to develop new vaccines.

Unfortunately, an infection akin to this hypothetical tragedy is actually coursing through African American and Latino communities across the nation. I’m not referring to a virus such as HIV/AIDS or a hazardous bacterium. I’m talking about the criminalization of poor children and children from minority races who enter what the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) identified as America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Together, African Americans and Latinos comprise a segment of the U.S. population equal to that of the six states I mentioned earlier. Like the victims of a crippling or wasting disease, once drawn into the prison pipeline, massive numbers of young people lose their opportunity to live happy, productive lives, not because of festering microbes but because of years spent behind bars.”

I am finding that county and state bureaucracies function like large companies. Their ability to innovate and address new challenges are as formidable as those mentioned discussed by Clayton Christensen in the Innovators Dilemma and more recently in his book co-authored by Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson “Disrupting Class.” Philanthropy must look for pockets of innovation and bring it to scale. One of the best models is The Harlem Children’s Zone spearheaded by the visionary leader Jeffrey Canada. Philanthropy has a critical role in providing dollars to support innovative programs, but it can capitalize on its money, power and social recognition, but convening conversations with leadership that will help citizens not only ask the right questions about problems they face, but nudge state bureaucracies and political leaders to make bold moves to create new environments in schools where the child and his/her family is the focus for health and success. Why not have primary health care offices along with mental health services located directly in poor schools? Families that might be eligible for Medicaid benefits could sign up and, perhaps at some point families will be able to figure out health insurance. At this point, these would be confounding proposals for huge bureaucracies. Be interesting to see Mr. Christensen and Mr. Horn research why state mental and public health institutions are failing to meet the needs of children and families in schools. In my experience, much of the problem can be traced to a lack of innovative thinking in these large bureaucracies. Healthy families and healthy children are likely to help improve successful outcomes in schools.

1 thought on “Mental Health in Public Schools

  1. Michael B. Horn

    Thanks for your post about such a serious problem. The question you raise is one that I’ve actually begun to think about as well, but this brings some more clarity about its need and so forth. We’ll try to begin addressing it in a white paper or two over the coming months out of Innosight Institute, but any more insight you have as well would be great. Your central point though I think is spot on.

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