Graphic by Emma Davis.
In first and eighth grade, students undergo mandatory hearing and vision screenings; public schools often take action to ensure students’ physical health. Mental health, however, is rarely addressed.
Addressing mental health in schools is essential; 44 percent of Whitman students self-reported battling mental health issues, according to a survey by the Black & White. Around the country, this number is closer to 20 percent of adolescents, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But on average, only 25 percent of adolescents diagnosed with mental health conditions receive adequate treatment nationwide, according to a 2014 Time Magazine article.
To ensure that all affected students have access to treatment, the MCPS Office of Student and Family Support and Engagement should develop and implement annual mandatory mental health screenings for all students.
Currently, it’s up to students or parents to reach out to counselors, school psychologists or school nurses for mental health support. Mental health screenings—which take the form of computerized tests—would be more valuable tools in proactively identifying individuals with mental health issues. In fact, federal officials recommended universal mental health screenings in schools over a decade ago, in 2003.
On average, a decade elapses between the onset of mental health symptoms and the time individuals receive treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This time, known as the “treatment gap,” often results in increased suffering for affected individuals and families.
If left untreated, mental health issues can increase an individual’s chance of becoming homeless, poverty-stricken or suicidal, clinical psychologist Dr. Reine Weiner said. Early intervention is crucial in stopping and reversing a spiral into serious impairment.
In terms of education, mental health issues can have a significant impact on students’ learning ability and academic success, Weiner said. For example, depression and anxiety can cause fatigue, trouble sleeping, poor concentration, impaired memory, poor decision making and reduced self confidence; these effects have been linked to lower test scores and grades.
The stigma surrounding mental health is another common barrier to treatment, psychology teacher Sheryl Freedman said. Implementing mental health screenings in schools will raise awareness and remove an obstacle to seeking help. Then, the counseling department can follow up with students to form treatment plans, if needed.
But some fear that mental health screenings in schools contribute to overdiagnosis and overprescription of medication; the failed Parental Consent Act of 2011 attempted to ban screenings on these grounds.
However, screenings can be refined and adjusted, and counselor meetings can confirm or counter screening results. Overall, the value of preventing suicides and suffering must outweigh the possibility of mistakes.
Educating and protecting students is a school’s responsibility, and fulfilling this responsibility is impossible without due diligence to mental health.