Today, May 7, 2009, is National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day. This year's theme is "Thriving in the Community," and the awareness campaign has a special emphasis on how high school youth who receive the services they need are more likely to have positive outcomes, such as better grades, and less likely to have negative outcomes, such as involvement with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
So many students who receive special education and related services require mental health services to address behavioral, social and emotional needs. We see a wide range of these issues, from kids who need school based counseling services to address their social skills deficits, to kids who require outside therapies to address their mental health needs, to kids who require residential placements because of the severity of their needs.
Here in California, we have what is referred to as AB3632 services, which are services and supports provided by the Department of Mental Health when a child on an IEP requires mental health services in order to access their curriculum. Read more about AB3632 here: http://www.dmh.ca.gov/Services_and_Programs/Children_and_Youth/AB3632.asp
Mental health issues need to be destigmatized-especially for kids and within the special education system. Why is it that parents are so reluctant to accept special education eligibility if the "category" is Emotional Disturbance (ED)? It's because of the stigma attached to these types of disabilities, the stigma that follows the child and unfortunately leads to misunderstanding by teachers and others who then often just assume "this is a bad kid." These issues can only be addressed by increased awareness on a large scale within school systems and communities.
One problem with mental health disabilities is that there are kids who are never identified as having a disability, but are merely "labelled" as being a disipline problem, so they never recieve the supports and services that they need. It is so true that if kids recieve the supports and services they need, they are more likely to have positive outcomes and less likely to end up on the juvenile or criminal system. As advocates, parents and educators, we have a "window of opportunity" to push for interventions and services for these students so that they can succeed and become productive participants in society.
Another equally concerning problem, however, is the overidentification of students as having "ED." In many instances, students with other disabilities, such as Learning Disabilities, Autism, etc, have related mental health needs, like anxiety or depression. Sometimes these needs are exasperated in situations where these children have not recieved the appropriate educational interventions or supports, and so they are flailing in a program where they are overwhelmed or feel "stupid." More awareness and education needs to take place to truly help parents and educators understand the existence of mental health needs that are related to other disabilities. The core disability may not be ED, but the child still may require mental health services in order to meet their needs.
There are also issues with systemic problems within school systems in terms of placing and servicing children with an "ED" label. Organizations all over the country are attempting to fight the "schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline" by advocating for systemic changes in how students with emotional and behavioral difficulties are served within the special education system. (read: http://www.splcenter.org/news/item.jsp?aid=282) Too often, these kids have been "wharehoused" into special day classes without true individualization of their programs. Too often, comprehensive behavioral evaluations have not been conducted, or behavior plans have not been based on positive interventions, or haven't been approrpiately implemented. These systemic issues need to be addressed if the educational system is truly going to meet the needs of these kids, increase their positive outcomes and decrease the negative outcomes. An interesting article about these systemic issues can be found at the Southern Poverty Law Center's website at http://www.splcenter.org/legal/news/article.jsp?aid=189&site_area=1.
National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day is a good step in the right direction for addressing the issues that face children with mental health needs. Awareness, community education, decreased stigmatization, and systemic change are all necessary to truly begin to meet the needs of these kids so that they really can thrive in their communities.