School Climate & Safety Opinion

Holding The Conversation About Mental Health

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 01, 2014 4 min read
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Another violent rampage by another disturbed young man has shattered a California campus community. Six college students were killed and 13 more were wounded in the rampage. In this case, reports reveal there were more warnings than in other cases. There was a call to the police by the shooter’s mother after she viewed videos her son had posted on YouTube. This prompted a visit by the police but the young man was articulate, polite and timid. They determined he was not a danger to himself or others. Then, his mother received the “manifesto” in the mail. She took it seriously and called 911. As the parents raced toward Isla Vista, their son was living out his intentions to kill.

So here we are again. A young man calling out his escalating determination to do violence, the desperate helplessness of parents of a young man whose age makes him independent and the judgment of law enforcement all entangled in the story that culminates in tears, lives lost and others forever changed. Holding the tension between the protection of individual rights and the protection of the public is a question with new meaning in this democracy. We have yet to design a policy to deal effectively and compassionately with our mentally ill. The problem is not new.

In 1984, we find evidence of a failure of the “policy that led to the release of most of the nation’s mentally ill patients from the hospital to the community.” An unintended consequence of deinstitutionalization was the increase of mentally ill in the homeless population. In 2006 the National Coalition for the Homeless reported that 20% - 25% of the single adult homeless population suffered from some form of mental illness. And in 2010 that number was up to 25.2%.

And according to a PBS Frontline presentation based on the work of E. Fuller Torrey’s 1997 book Out of the Shadows: Confronting America’s Mental Illness Crisis:

...deinstitutionalization has helped create the mental illness crisis by discharging people from public psychiatric hospitals without ensuring that they received the medication and rehabilitation services necessary for them to live successfully in the community. Deinstitutionalization further exacerbated the situation because, once the public psychiatric beds had been closed, they were not available for people who later became mentally ill, and this situation continues up to the present.

Not only are the number of beds limited, the length of stay is also limited by managed care and insurance policies. More and more of our children are medicated for these illnesses. Sooner or later, our society needs to confront its need to care for our mentally ill.

Mental illness carries with it a stigma unlike that of other illnesses. And, now, with these incidents of young men acting out with guns and knives, the potential for a further misunderstanding exists. There are mental illnesses that do not become evident until late teens or early twenties, but most are evident by the early teens. As we wrote previously, the US Center for Disease Control published a study of mental health in children. Entitled Mental Health Surveillance Among Children, 2005 - 2011, it reported that “childhood mental illnesses affect up to 1 in 5 children between the ages of 3 and 17and cost $247 billion per year in medical bills, special education and juvenile justice.

That means mental health is the business of educators. It has to be since it comes to school inside our children. And, like society at large, our attention to mental health has been in response to problems and children with challenging behaviors, urgent situations, and emergencies. It is not just an issue about learning; it has become a matter of school safety. In the case in Isla Vista, California, or Aurora Colorado, it was a matter of public safety. Our past model, to institutionalize those with mental illness, may have made us feel safe. We didn’t have to watch those suffering with the illness. But we also couldn’t handle the realities of what life was like for those institutionalized. So there it is, the tension between awareness and denial, knowledge and ignorance, facing a reality or putting one’s head in the sand. We haven’t addressed that tension, that space between knowing and doing the right thing. Worse, as a nation we haven’t yet decided what the right thing is.

Let us not allow the increasing number of senseless acts of violence to pass by without our trying to make sense of what it means to us in schools. How do we feel about mental illness and what do we know about dealing with it? How do we deal with mental illness in our schools? Do we send students to separate facilities for specialized care and place them on our back burners because they no longer learn in our buildings? Do we think about these students when we talk about college and career readiness? What roles do our schools play in the larger picture of the community at large? What does this mean to our schools and our graduates?

Sense making in this arena involves facing some difficult facts. Mental illness is confusing and frightening and has been ignored or pushed aside as an issue for our schools and for our country. Beginning by learning more, opening conversations in our districts, with our colleagues and with experts will be a step forward. Let’s not allow these tragedies go on without us learning from them. It is a leadership step into a frontier territory but that’s where leaders go, isn’t it?

Previous posts on this topic:
School Violence and Mental Health
School Shootings: Mental Health Matters

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