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Ask an Expert: Can schools help mentally ill kids?

Q. In light of the horrible Arizona shootings, do you think there’s more that schools could do to spot people and help students with mental health issues, which, if left untreated, could potentially result in an act of violence?

A. In the sad aftermath of the Arizona killings, reflection and soul-searching are a natural part of trying to make sense of tragic events.  The first thing to bear in mind is that the vast majority of individuals with severe mental illness are not, and do not become, dangerous.  They may appear unusual, and they may say bizarre and provocative things, but they rarely hurt others.  When they do, it is often out of fear of a real or imagined threat.

When we look at the lives of those rare individuals who develop mental illness and who also go on to commit violent acts, one thing that often stands out is that these children are often socially challenged, withdrawn,  have difficulty communicating with others, and have difficulty reflecting on their own psychological and emotional states.  They typically do not appear on the ‘radar screen’ of teachers or school personnel until they begin to act out.  Often, precious time has been lost and positive potential has been squandered.

Can schools predict who will become violent?  Not very well.  We can, however,  identify children who are at risk for mental illness. While most schools and communities could do much more in terms of screening for mental health concerns, such processes are labor intensive and may be seen by some as a luxury that underfunded schools can ill afford. Even when concerns are identified, appropriate intervention is usually outside the scope of what can be provided at school. Families that do have health insurance often encounter significant barriers and minimal funding for children with identified mental health needs.

Although events like those in Arizona are shocking and rightly dominate headlines,  extraordinary violence occurs every day. Most aggression is socialized, in that children observe and model the violent or anti-social behavior of adults or other children. When violence is tolerated or even celebrated, there is an increased probability that it will re-occur. For most children, primary and secondary prevention programs designed to prevent bullying and foster a positive, nurturing social climate are highly effective in decreasing violence.

For those students who struggle with mental illness and may also be at risk for becoming aggressive, school-wide programs that promote healthy self-expression, acceptance, civility, inclusion and respect can also decrease the likelihood of outbursts or breakdowns. Norms that promote interpersonal respect  serve to reduce the occurrence and intensity of day-to-day conflicts that may occur within any school milieu. This lowers stress, which reduces the intensity of emotional disturbance. Civility is a tide that raises all boats. What is more, each of us can do our part to promote it.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.