Last month, we witnessed the tragic impact of a young man who shot and killed children in a Newtown, Connecticut school. Following that, we see and hear discussions about mental illness and our need to deal with it. Recent proposals have emerged about guns not being in the hands of individuals with mental illness. Because of such a tragedy, the issue is raised and rightly so. But what can we do about it?
The magnitude of mental illness in our society
I first want to mention the magnitude of the problem. Take a look at this quote from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
“Mental disorders are common among children in the United States and can be particularly difficult for the children themselves and their caregivers. While mental disorders are widespread, the main burden of illness is concentrated among those suffering from a seriously debilitating mental illness. Just over 20 percent of children (or 1 in 5), either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.”
15 million children have or had debilitating mental disorders
According to our government, about 78 million children live in our country. Presuming the NIMH statistics are accurate, over 15 million children of those in our country currently have, or had at some point during their lives, a seriously debilitating mental disorder. Imagine looking around a typical school and realizing what that means for children, parents, teachers, administrators and family members. I think we all can easily become overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the problem.
So, even if we properly diagnose children with these types of problems, what resources exist for us to get help for them?
Our systems of care are overwhelmed. Some of our children need to undergo therapeutic help and intervention over a consistent and prolonged period of time—time that would swallow our current systems of care. Moreover, parents and child-caregivers also need coaching and support. We honestly do not have enough clinics, social workers or therapists to meet this magnitude of need.
I think we are under the impression that if we diagnose the problem, we can now get a solution and provide help and hope. This is a misconception. If we were to diagnose 15 million children’s problems, our systems could not possibly deal with the varied levels of resources required to support and truly help these children.
Where is hope?
Are we without hope? No, but we desperately need to look at the environments and realities of what is going on for our children. Hope lies in shifting the paradigm.
I am quite sure we will find more and more schools having armed security guards. No doubt, we will spend millions to protect against the possibility of a shooting or terroristic threat.
What are we spending on a problem that we know exists in 1 out of 5 children?
We are in desperate need of an environmental change for children who are struggling with these issues. If we are going to prevent the growth of mental illness and reduce its impact in our society, we need to diagnose early, be aggressive to get help to our children and families, and provide constant resources in our schools and communities. Is providing schools with resources to help students worth matching funding for security guards? Can a bandage eliminate a gaping wound?
Lakeside has a meaningful program.
We provide schools in our region with an in-school counselor who can help struggling children and teenagers. We are able to off-load the responsibilities of the school staff who surface the student’s needs.
Our staff can meet with the student to provide on-going support for issues like mental illness.
- We provide a place for the students to process their issues.
- We provide a resource for school staff to get support for their concerns about students.
- We also provide a resource for parents.
- This is not tremendously expensive in comparison with the magnitude of the problem and the ratio of funds that schools spend in other issues.
I do not minimize the difficulty that schools face in cuts of programs, but this type of program just seems to make sense to me as a means to resolve some of the issues that are prevalent in the schools in our region. Some of these districts now have hired several counselors to help different schools with children of different ages.
An intentional solution will work.
The point I want to make is that it is possible to deal with this problem if we are intentional, well-trained and focused on this issue. Help can make the difference between a student who fails and drops out of school, and one who has competency to find the tools to become a successful and productive citizen.
We need to be proactive toward this devastating problem to our children (and adults). We need to provide quality professionals who are trained and able to help our children and teenagers. We need to have an environment in which children and parents can find the help they need without judgment and without having to provide thousands of dollars that they cannot afford.
If we can provide security guards, it seems feasible we can provide a few caring, well-trained professionals who can help our children get the help they need. Perhaps then, we can prevent a crisis like we experienced in Newtown.
There is much more to say, and I will continue this discussion in future posts.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network