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Early Mental, Drug Health Screenings Urged

As Sunday’s editorial in this paper correctly said, “Public schools are supposed to focus on teaching children, not filling gaps in nutrition, health care and mental wellness services.”

Unfortunately, as I wrote in my April column, today’s schools are not the schools of our childhood. Schools now routinely send food home with students, provide them with clothes, wash and dry their clothes, provide personal care items, assist families with paying bills and rent.

Along with meeting physical needs, schools are also focusing on students’ mental needs, training their teachers in suicide prevention and mental health first aid. Today, schools are caring for the whole child. But we need more help. We need more counselors in schools.

In a recently released School Safety Report (December 2018) completed by the Federal Commission on School Safety, a committee established after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, mental health needs were emphasized. The report provides observations and recommendations regarding school violence and indicates more comprehensive mental health services must be implemented in schools. The commission found that fewer than 50 percent of children and teens with a mental disorder actually receive the treatment they need, and a staggering 50-75 percent of youth involved with the criminal justice system have some kind of mental disorder.

The report recommends mental health and substance abuse screenings occur within schools, and the earlier these begin, the better. John Marshall High School Counselor Marilyn Wehrheim concurred with the recommendations. “Proactive counseling at an early age should help to identify students who are at risk,” said Wehrheim. “Today’s students need social, emotional, behavioral and academic support; and counselors collaborate with faculty, staff, family, and outside agencies when necessary to promote healthy development for all students.”

The mental health of our youngest citizens are not simply school issues; they are community issues, and as such, it will take the work of the community to fix these problems. Strong collaboration between schools and local mental health agencies, pediatricians, and law enforcement will be necessary to ensure students who need mental health services receive that help. Students need mental health screenings early and often, beginning in preschool and continuing through high school.

Students need to be thoroughly assessed, counseled, and referred to psychologists and psychiatrists as necessary. Communities must also ensure that students receive effective ongoing and follow-up mental health treatment, and embedding these services in schools increases the likelihood that students’ needs will be met.

Several states, like Florida and Texas, are allocating funds to improve the mental health of their students, with much of the money earmarked to hire more school counselors. If West Virginia legislators listen to their constituents, our state will more than likely join the ranks of other enlightened states that are following the mental health recommendations of the commission. The citizens of our state clearly recognize that our schools need more help in caring for the mental health needs of our children.

Over the past several months, over 20,000 West Virginia residents had the opportunity, both at public meetings and online, to voice their concerns about their state’s schools. This month, the West Virginia Department of Education released a report, West Virginia’s Voice, detailing the results of the information gathered from those forums.

Nearly 100 percent of West Virginians who contributed to the report believe the state should “increase funding for social emotional supports with local flexibility.” Respondents argued that funding should specifically go toward “support personnel that works directly with students to support social emotional issues, such as school counselors, psychologists, and social workers.” A key finding noted that West Virginians realize that “public schools carry much of the burden created by abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.”

The report provides me with a sense of optimism. West Virginians realize their public schools cannot successfully fix the problems alone. They realize that to fix much of society’s ills, we must ensure that our youngest citizens get the social, emotional, and mental help they need. I can only hope our legislators are listening.

–To read West Virginia’s Voice, go to wvde.us/edvoices.

–To read the School Safety Report, go to 2.ed.gov.

Jonna Kuskey is an English teacher at John Marshall High School. She was named the 2017 James Moffett Award winner by the National Council of Teachers of English and the third place winner of the 2017 Penguin Random House Foundation Teacher Awards for Literacy.

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