As an increasing number of schools roll out evidence-based mental-health programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), teaching that promotes appropriate student behavior by proactively defining, teaching, and supporting positive student conduct, and Trauma-Sensitive Schools, programs aimed at reducing the effects of trauma on children’s emotional and academic well-being, educators need to be at least minimally conversant in the terminology, methods, and thinking behind these strategies. These programs provide strategies that can be highly effective, but only if the teachers tasked with implementing them are sufficiently trained in the basics of mental-health interventions and treatment.
Teachers routinely receive first-aid training in CPR, EpiPen use, and safe body fluid cleanup, but it’s rare for schools to offer training in mental health, said Todd Giszack, Academic Dean of Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Virginia. Recognizing that schools are responsible for their students’ mental, as well as physical health, Fork Union Military Academy designed and implemented its own curriculum with the help of two mental-health professionals, and now offers eight-hour certification programs in Mental Health First Aid. “It has taken two years, but nearly all of our faculty and staff has become certified in Mental Health First Aid. This has allowed our school community to become familiar with trends and warning signs associated with adolescent emotional and mental health” Giszack said.
Dr. Michael Hollander, Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of Training and Consultations on the 3East Dialectical Behavioral Therapy program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, urges teachers to use caution when intervening in students’ mental-health crises. “In my experience, teacher response tends to be bi-modal; either they get solicitous, over-involved, and in over their head, or they mistake mental health issues for behavioral problems that require in-class discipline.”
Programs such as NAMI’s Parents and Teachers as Allies presentation are beneficial, Dr. Hollander said, because they help teachers understand both the benefits and limitations of in-class interventions. Despite his worries about teacher-facilitated mental health interventions, he’s grateful for the trend toward a greater understanding of students’ mental health. “We have arrived at a place where we finally understand that teaching is not just about educating someone’s rational mind, but also educating their heart,” he said.
Children with untreated mental-health issues can get by. They can limp along toward adulthood until an inevitable, eventual mental-health crisis lands them in the hospital, in jail, or even at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility for adolescents, where I teach. But by then, a lot of damage has been done to their young minds and hearts—damage that could have been prevented if they had received support when their symptoms first appeared.
As I read their essays about crippling childhood anxiety, alcoholic parents, and/or domestic violence, I can’t help but mourn for all the lost opportunities and squandered potential that was wasted on the way.