Making Mental Health Matter: Mentality in the Young Mind
I have been an elementary assistant principal for nine years and an educator for 14 years. This is the first year I have been significantly and overwhelmingly concerned at the increase in kids’ mental health issues, specifically their lack of self-regulation skills (the universal set of skills that helps us manage our responses to things that happen in our lives).
As the only assistant principal in the building of about 600 kids, I wear multiple hats within my role which includes being the behavioral interventionist/mediator along with facilitating IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and SST (Student Support) teams. I help kids with conflict resolution, managing their anger and problem solving. Until this year, I could count on one hand within all my years the number of kids I heard talking about hurting themselves. This year though, it got brought up all the time. Kids would say: “I just want to kill myself.” Of course we have a process in place within our school system for when that happens. The person who heard the threat contacts the school counselor who does a threat assessment, makes a plan with the child for help and contacts the parents as well as seeks out additional resources as needed. Most of the time, the child does not realize the impact of what they are saying and they don’t really mean it. However, this year I had a student who did mean it and he had a plan for how he wanted to kill himself. That made our job of working with the parent and getting the child the appropriate treatment critical.
After we got the process started for SST, the parent shared over one weekend, the child had been checked into a mental health institution. The parent put me on the visitor list for the student and of course I went. Subsequently, the child had an additional stay there, attended their day school and worked with our school processes to put him on a modified day with a 504 plan at school. However, due to medication changes, he had significant side effects which increased suicidal tendencies causing detrimental repercussions during the school day. This led to an increase in our collaboration with the parent and outside mental health professionals. It will also lead to a home and hospital process in the future (this is when a child cannot attend school and requires a tutor through the system). As a result of this collaborative approach and the parent’s dedication to finding appropriate treatment for her child where in which she had to work with mental health professionals to implement and monitor appropriate medications along with taking him to therapy on a consistent basis, he is making good progress right now. But what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten appropriate intervention and treatment?
So these situations this year got me thinking, has there been a significant rise in mental health concerns among our youth? It certainly seemed like it in my day to day interactions. When I did the research I found from this site: https://bellepapillon247.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/world-mental-health-day-oct-10/ that 1 in 5 kids will struggle with a mental health disorder at some point. Fifty of those mental illnesses begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24. I was saddened to read that there is about a 10 year delay for those identified when symptoms present to intervention. Which led me to the next stat that confirmed my previous notion: suicide is the second leading cause of death between 15 and 24 year olds with 90 percent of those who died of suicide having an underlying mental illness. Yikes!
This made me realize that as a school leader, mental health advocate and a person who suffers from mental illness myself (depression), it is time to spread awareness to overcome the mental health stigma so that we can all work together to try to help our kids get proper intervention.
Below are signs of the most common mental disorders that can have similar symptoms along with ways you can help your child with those disorders by working with the school.
Symptoms of Mental Disorders
- Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes
- Forms letters or words poorly; messy writing
- Has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
- Lacks follow-through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork or chores
- Avoids or strongly dislikes tasks (such as schoolwork) that require sustained mental effort
- Is forgetful in daily activities
- Has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
- Loses things necessary for tasks or activities (pencils, assignments, tools)
- Shows difficulty engaging in leisure activities quietly
- Acts as if “driven by a motor” and cannot remain still
- Blurts out answers to questions before the questions have been completed or often interrupts others
- Excessive worry most days of the week for weeks on end
- Trouble sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
- Restlessness or fatigue during waking hours
- Trouble concentrating
- Constant and unreasoned fear
- Feeling of loneliness
- Feeling of lack of power and associated psychosomatic pains such as: headache & digestive problems
- Irritability or anger
- Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Social withdrawal
- Increased sensitivity to rejection
- Changes in appetite-either increased or decreased
- Changes in sleep-sleeplessness or excessive sleep
- Vocal outbursts or crying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue and low energy
- Physical complaints (such as stomachaches, headaches) that don’t respond to treatment
- Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Impaired thinking of concentration
- Thoughts of death or suicide
If you notice these symptoms and have a concern that your child could have a mental disorder and/or needs treatment, it’s important for you to get the school involved. Share your concern with the teacher (s), counselor, nurse and/or request a SST (student support team) meeting. Members of the SST include everyone listed above along with the psychologist and they can provide appropriate resources for you to help your child, implement assessments to get a diagnosis and identify interventions.
Ways the school can help
1. Formal and informal testing:
Instead of paying for outside evaluations, if you go through the school’s team process (SST or IEP), the school can implement checklists and other assessment tools to diagnose your child with a mental disorder.
Once the school knows about concerns in regards to your child’s mental health, we can help monitor that child letting you know if we are seeing the same symptoms, and when those symptoms occur. If your child is trying out a specific medication, we will monitor the impact on the child by letting you know if we see any side effects.
One of the largest detriments to kids getting the appropriate treatment in mental healthcare is cost. The school usually has a list of resources for outside health professionals along with a network of resources within the school system through the team process. For example, I do not have a social worker assigned to my school, but if I feel a child needs social work services and they have been identified with a disability through the IEP team, as the team chair I can complete a referral through the county where a social worker will be assigned to them.
This year a parent I was working with through team said something that really stood out to me. Her child has co-diagnoses of anxiety and ADHD. The child’s anxiety was extremely significant the year before and working with outside health professionals, they had finally found the right medication to help the symptoms subside. However, this year the child’s ADHD started significantly impacting their education leading to a change in accommodations on their 504 plan. After amending the plan and sharing an abundance of resources, the parent looked at me at the end of team and said: “You mean they will struggle with these disorder for the rest of their life?” I said yes they would because it was true. Mental health disorders don’t just go away. There isn’t a magic pill or perfect treatment plan. But if we teach our youth the importance of treating and managing their mental health and we all work together to help identify the best interventions for them perhaps we can reduce the mental health stigma and see those statistics decrease.
Chrissie Kahan is an advocate for equity and students with disabilities. As an educator for the past 15 years and an assistant principal for the past 8, she has experience working in partnership with parents, teachers, and related service providers. Chrissie has always had a heart for children, especially advocating for kids who have been labeled as "behavior problems." She is special-education certified and serves as the Individualized Education Program (IEP)/Student Support Team Chair within her elementary school.
She has authored the following books: Benny Gator and Angry Ana with the purpose of spreading awareness to kids and families in regards to the topics of anxiety and anger management. She has also co-authored the book Navigating the Road of Infertility with her husband. This book has been featured internationally, most recently on HLN for National Infertility week. She and her husband have founded the publishing company: King Kahan Publishing, LLC where their hope is to publish books that focus on spreading awareness to real world issues in a meaningful way.
Roadmap to Navigating Your Child’s Disability will be available on Amazon and Smashwords.