The mental health epidemic in schools, part 1: An education leader’s role

William Woods EDU

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, approximately 13 percent of children ages 8-15 experience a severe mental disorder at some point in their life, and for those ages 13-18 it is 21.4 percent.

Over the past several months, NPR has been producing a special series called A Silent Epidemic: The Mental Health Crisis in Our Schools, bringing to light the issue of students suffering from mental health related illnesses, as well as warning signs and tools and resources that educators and school administrators can use to help those affected.

One article in the series highlights a model that many experts point to: the multi-tiered system of supports. This is essentially an upside-down pyramid approach that starts with support for all students and moves on to more specialized help for at-risk, in-need students.

“Here, everyone in the school has a part to play,” the article explains. “The collective mission is broad: Create a school environment of general well-being, and a climate where mental health isn’t stigmatized.”

This model must start from the top, and a great example of this is Amanda Aikens, a principal in New Orleans. Aikens made it a point for her and others in her staff to stand outside the school every morning when the school buses came in to greet the students. With at least one faculty member at every door, every student from preschool to grade 8 shook at least two hands, and sometimes even received a hug, each morning before they made it into the building.

Aikens did this with not only kindness in mind, but strategy. At her school, she estimates that as many as 70 percent of students have experienced some form of trauma over the last two years, due to neighborhood violence, family troubles, and the daily stress of living in an impoverished home and community.

“I see the principal as the leader in setting the tone and the culture of how school will support students and families,” Aikens said. “If you have everyone trained and take a ‘it takes a village’ approach, you can do a lot of preventative measures to reduce the risk significantly.”

William Woods’ students studying to become an education leader — pursuing degrees such as an MEd in Administration, MEd in Curriculum and Instruction, or Doctorate in Educational Leadership — will take courses to prepare them in assessing current issues and forming strategic approaches to system transformation, as well as assembling and training a strong education team within their school.

Though this top level is where the model starts, it is by no means where it ends. “A healthy school environment isn’t enough,” Aikens explained.

“The Village” must consist of many professionals across the field, from teachers, to parents, to school nurses, school psychologists, social workers, counselors and other key players, all playing their proper role in supporting these students and helping to make sure no student with a mental illness goes unnoticed or unsupported.

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