May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. This is a great time to highlight the importance of mental wellness and school-based mental health servicesto children’s positive learning and development.
According to a survey by the National Institute of Mental Health, about 20 percent of U.S. youth are affected by some type of mental disorder during their lifetime to an extent that they have difficulty functioning. Yet only about 16 percent of children who need mental health services actually receive them.
The majority of students who do receive needed services access them at school. Research indicates that students are more likely to seek help when they need it if school-based mental health services are available.
Still, far too often students are pushed out of school and into the juvenile justice system for behaviors that could be prevented through a combination of effective discipline policies and practices and consistent access to behavioral, emotional and mental health supports.
While we’ve made notable gains in other areas of school discipline and juvenile justice reform, this is one area that still needs our attention. Across the country, judges cite being overwhelmed by cases of basic student misconduct that should have been handled by the school. Russell Skiba, professor of Counseling and Education Psychology at Indiana University notes that Pennsylvania reported that the number of referrals to the juvenile justice system that involved a child with mental health needs and/or as a result of zero tolerance policies has tripled over the past seven years.
Our students deserve better than this. We need to do a better job of implementing effective school-wide discipline policies and practices that ensure access to behavioral, emotional, and mental health supports for children and youth.
What can be done?
Schools are an ideal setting to identify children in need of mental health services and to ensure that they receive the services they need both during and after the school day.
Each year, more than 9,000 children are placed in juvenile justice or foster care so they can receive mental health care.
Unfortunately, not all students have access to school based mental health services. Some 60 to 75 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition, and at least 75 percent have experienced traumatic victimization, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. There is evidence to suggest that more than 9,000 children per year are placed in the juvenile justice or foster care systemso that they can receive mental health care, even though these services are often unavailable in states’ system.
Improving access to school-based mental health services, and school-employed mental health professionals can help stop the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” and ensure that all students are given the supports they need to be successful. With the right services, schools can identify students who may need mental or behavioral health services early and deliver the appropriate interventions as soon as possible, helping to keep them out of the justice system.
One way to support this approach is to collectively advocate for a strengthened and adequately funded Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA). Currently seven years overdue for reauthorization, the JJDPA is federal law that sets national standards for juvenile justice systems and provides incentives for states to invest in strategies that protect children and provide them with the services they need while reducing juvenile crime.
Among the strategies the JJDPA can support is increased access to school psychologists, who have specialized training in child development, mental health, learning, and school systems. Their unique expertise lies in how these elements interact to shape children’s behavior, learning, and overall adjustment. They are skilled at consultation and collaboration and work effectively with school personnel, parents, and community personnel when needed, to link effective mental health interventions that lead to improved behavior, social–emotional wellness, and academic achievement. School psychologists work to provide behavioral and mental health servicesthat are embedded within positive discipline policies and practices to ensure that students stay in school and out of jail.
We can help all children succeed in school, home and life by calling for policies that ensure that all of our children have a chance to succeed. That’s why the National Association of School Psychologists supports laws like the JJDPA.
On the eve of the law’s 40th anniversary and in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we urge Congress to adequately fund the law and to put forth a reauthorization bill that focuses on preventing individuals with or at-risk for mental health problems from entering the juvenile justice system; prioritizes the screening and treatment of mental health problems among individuals in the juvenile justice system; and allows mental health professionals greater input during the law’s implementation.
Allison Bollinger Miller is the Manager of Professional Relations at the National Association of School Psychologists, where she works collaboratively with public policy makers, educational and health professionals, and elected officials to advocate for the importance and value of school psychology, school psychologists, and school psychological services. She also represents NASP as a member of the Steering Committee for the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition.
This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.
The JJDPA, the nation’s landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.