By Alejandra Posada, Janet Pozmantier and Stephen H. Linder
The recent shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school has opened the conversation and has many of us struggling with what needs to happen to prevent another tragedy like this from happening again. For a young person to even have such thoughts and feelings is unimaginable. To have them actually follow through with these heinous acts is chilling. However, assigning teachers the responsibility to bear arms on campus as a means of protection for students and themselves is not the answer to address campus gun violence. The risks of “collateral damage” from armed teachers in a shootout could result in a more disastrous situation. While there is no single best solution to eliminate the risk of more tragedies, we believe that a compelling answer can be found in the early detection and prevention of mental health issues in our children.
In a nationwide State of Mental Health in America – Youth Data report for 2017, Mental Health America found that 11.25 percent of U.S. teens and pre-teens, aged 12-17, reported suffering from at least one major depressive episode in the past year. In Texas, 67.3 percent of young people with major depression did not receive any mental health treatment. That means that 6 out of 10 in this age group, who have depression and who are most at risk of suicidal thoughts, difficulty in school, and difficulty in relationships with others, do not get the treatment they need.
Clearly now, more than ever, it is important that, as a society, we take the mental health of school-age children seriously, and invest time, resources and awareness for prevention and early intervention. We cannot afford to test an “O.K. Corral” theory against the wellbeing of our children and the educators who work to teach, protect and serve them. Fighting gunfire with gunfire is not the answer.
Parents should be aware that our schools are at risk for this situation at any school, at any time. In the days since the Florida shooting, there have been at least five accounts of young people in the Houston area making threats against a school, outlining plans for on-campus violence, and even bringing a gun on campus, resulting in high alerts and school lockdowns.
Instead of allotting funding to have teachers and other educators go through special gun training, why not change the system, making it mandatory and fiscally viable for all teachers, counselors, and others who work in a Texas school district, to learn to protect themselves and students by using an arsenal of early identification and prevention tools to identify, resource and refer young people with mental health concerns?
Significant strides have been made in some districts, but so much more needs to be done all over our state. We desperately need to adopt system-wide changes. Too many schools in our state are sorely under-resourced, when it comes to behavioral health issues, with some having no counselors and others only one counselor trained to recognize mental health concerns in young people. The research shows that expanding school counseling services in schools is associated with improvements in mental health and behavior, but also in student learning.
Children are living in troubled times, and unfortunately teachers and schools bear the brunt of many of these concerns. As part of the solution in our region, Mental Health America of Greater Houston, through its Center for School Behavioral Health, works collaboratively with 26 public and charter school districts and more than 80 child-serving organizations, institutions of higher learning, community stakeholders, advocacy groups, students and parents, to develop and implement projects and policies that promote the wellbeing of school-age children, prevent the downward trajectory of untreated behavioral health concerns, and appropriately address the needs of children with behavioral disorders, as well as the needs of children who have experienced trauma.
By working together with concerned state officials, we can better support our public education system to ensure that the behavioral health and wellbeing of all students and educators are addressed through early detection and prevention programs.
About the authors: Posada, M.Ed., is the interim president and CEO of the Mental Health America of Greater Houston; Pozmantier, M.S., LPC, LMFT, RPT, is the director at the Center for School Behavioral Health at the Mental Health America of Greater Houston; Linder, Ph.D., is the board chair of the Mental Health America of Greater Houston.