By Darcy Gruttadaro, Director, Child & Adolescent Action Center
The unthinkable Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy woke the nation up to the fact that more must be done to address mental health in communities across the country. Many have called on schools to play a bigger role, but schools cannot do this alone. They need support to better address the mental health needs of students. NAMI stands ready to help and calls for a commitment from schools in five key areas.
- Educating school staff on the early warning signs of mental illness and how to link students and families with services and supports. NAMI’s Parents and Teachers as Allies program provides school professionals with the training they need to identify early warning signs. It also provides guidance on how to effectively talk with families about concerns. Learn more about how to bring Parents and Teachers as Allies to your community.
- Creating effective links between schools and the community mental health system. School-based mental health professionals, like counselors and psychologists, provide important support to students and families. However, schools need to establish a formal relationship with the community mental health system for students that require more intensive clinical services and support. There are model programs around the country, like a school-linked mental health program in Minnesota, which have improved in the early identification of mental illness, providing access to services and academic achievement. We need more schools to adopt these programs.
- Educating and engaging students in a discussion about mental health. Students learn about many physical health conditions in school, but often are uneducated in mental health conditions. We can change the conversation about mental illness and break down the barriers that prevent youth from seeking help by enriching the dialog about mental illness in schools. The more the school community talks about mental health, the more willing students will be to seek help. In September, NAMI is launching Ending the Silence as a national program. This program engages students in a conversation about mental health. Stay tuned for much more information from NAMI on how to bring Ending the Silence to your school.
- Training School Resource Officers (SROs) and others on effective crisis intervention and services to help prevent and respond to psychiatric crises. NAMI talked with a thoughtful group of SROs about their training needs in responding to students with serious mental health conditions. We chronicled their responses in a focus group report . We also developed a series of resources on how to bring Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to SROs and communities to better address the needs of youth. Bringing CIT training to schools equips SROs with the tools they need to both prevent and respond to psychiatric crises.
- Talking with Families. Parents and caregivers are extremely knowledgeable about how to best teach and understand their child. The key then, is to create a relationship of trust and understanding between families and schools. This comes with mutual respect and open communication. When families and schools are aligned toward achieving common goals, everyone wins.
NAMI recognizes that schools will benefit greatly from receiving community support to better address the needs of students with emerging mental illness. The sooner that these students are accepted and linked with effective services and supports, the better. As this school year opens, NAMI stands ready to work with schools to ensure a brighter future for all youth.