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Opinion: Schools prime place to meet youth mental health needs

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For parents, there aren’t many phone calls you want to receive less during the workday than one from your child’s school. When you see that familiar number on caller ID, you brace yourself. It often means something went wrong.

Increasingly, that call might involve a concern about your child’s mental health.

Maybe they had an outburst in class. Maybe they were too anxious to concentrate on an assignment. Regardless, your child is not doing well and you’re needed now. As a working parent, additional anxiety may set in, because you now have to talk about your child’s mental health issues with your boss.

It’s a discussion most American employees still hesitate to have, according to a study commissioned by a nonprofit children’s mental health advocacy group, On Our Sleeves. In a quantitative survey of 3,684 U.S. business journal readers, 65% agreed that stigma exists when it comes to discussing their child’s mental health in the workplace. In an accompanying survey, 45% of working parents feared losing their jobs if their child’s mental health issues interrupted their work.

Few, if any, industries have avoided workforce shortages and hiring and retention challenges – health care included. But we are seeing rates of suicide, depression and anxiety rising dramatically among children, as well as an alarming increase in the number of children seeking treatment for mental health-related needs during emergency room visits, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If I were forced to choose which of these two crises needs the most immediate attention, childhood mental health would have to come first.

But having started my tenure at Burrell Behavioral Health as the vice president of school-based services, I view this troubling data as an opportunity. That’s because I know there is no better place to more quickly identify and help children experiencing mental health challenges than in their school buildings.

Roughly 80% of children who receive mental health care receive it in a school setting, according to the CDC. This results in added pressure for school faculty to support students’ mental wellness and creates the perfect opportunity for partnerships between schools and mental health providers.

Located on every Springfield Public Schools campus, as well as across about 60 other Missouri school districts, Burrell’s school-based services team members help students who’ve struggled with anxiety reach points where they want to sign up for a school club or team. They see students diagnosed with depression open up and build friendships with their classmates. They work with kids whose behavior issues disrupted classes to get them refocused and ready to learn.

Addressing the mental health of students increases academic performance across a number of measurable categories – GPA, standardized test scores and attendance among them – according to research from the National Center for School Mental Health. Research also shows that struggling academically leads many to experience exacerbated mental health issues. Having school-based services available on campuses can help students address issues and reduce or prevent that vicious cycle.

For a parent who has not had direct experience with school-based services, there can be some understandable questions. One I hear often is: When am I brought into the process?

The answer: From the start. A guardian is notified once their child is referred to see a school-based specialist or clinician, and together we move forward. Parental or guardian support is a welcome, pivotal element of the continuum of professional mental health care provided to a child. It is both policy and best practice to build a bridge of care that links trained professionals with the people who matter most in a child’s life.

At the same time, we seek to ease strains on an educator workforce that reports being unequipped to deal with children’s rising mental health needs and behavior issues. Over 15,000 school faculty have received professional development regarding youth mental health issues from Burrell staff over the past five years. That, in turn, improves the classroom environment. Recent studies in the International Journal of Educational Research show teachers are likely to have more positive attitudes toward children with disabilities when they feel equipped to support them.

Having trained mental health care workers inside our school buildings allows us to help on the front lines of the youth mental health care crisis as well, helping kids feel their best inside and outside the classroom doors.

Elizabeth Avery is the chief regional operating officer for Burrell Behavioral Health’s southwest region. She can be reached at elizabeth.avery@burrellcenter.com.

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