We Can't Ignore the Mental Health of Our Students If We Want Them to Be Successful

Feb 6, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Joe Smith

“Education is the key to success.” It’s a phrase we hear time and time again, repeated ad nauseam by educators, leaders and parents. From the beginning, we are taught that if we stay in school and earn good grades, we will have a shot at a life of achievement. Yet another part of that equation is often overlooked. If education is the “key” to success, what is the “key” to education? Today starts National School Counseling Week. During this week we are encouraged to consider what has been missing from our conversations about academic excellence. Over my more than 30 years working in education, I have found that in order for students to succeed, educators must place an unwavering emphasis on one thing: mental health. The burden that comes from living with an untreated mental health disease can consume a child’s life and hinder their ability to learn. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that as many as 1 in 5 children in the United States show signs of a mental health disorder—which can include anything from attention-deficit disorder to anxiety to autism spectrum disorders. Left untreated, [pullquote position="right"]mental health issues can force students into a downward spiral[/pullquote], leading to chronic absence, poor test scores and dropping out. Children who come from low-income families are especially at risk. A study by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente found that students who live in poverty experience a greater degree of adverse experiences, such as housing instability, violence and food insecurity—making them more prone to long-term mental health consequences. Unfortunately, they also have fewer resources available to them to invest in their mental health. According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s 2014 State of America’s Children report, nearly 45 percent of youth living in poverty who needed mental health care between 2011-12 did not receive the necessary treatment. Among-African American children, this number reached up to 55 percent. In order for our country to move forward, we need to make sure every child—regardless of their background or economic standing—is provided with the opportunity to develop the key cognitive, social and academic skills they need in order to grow into healthy and productive citizens.

The Value of Early Intervention

As the co-founder of Eagle Academy—located at the crux of one of the highest crime and poverty rates in Washington, D.C.—I have seen children enter our classrooms carrying the baggage of their home life. Some may be haunted by the images of violence on their streets. Others may be struggling to listen to their teacher as they worry where their next meal will come from. Whatever their situation, as educators, how can we expect them to thrive in the classroom before they deal with the outside factors preventing them from being able to learn? In order to address this problem, we must first understand the importance of emotional health in education, and then be willing to dedicate the time and resources necessary to efficiently and effectively identify and treat mental health issues. School systems must then reach out to public and private mental health agencies and organizations to develop partnerships in order to bring services to the children in their schools. Working with pre-K through third-grade students, I’ve learned the value of early intervention. When teachers are trained to look for any indications of mental health risks, they are more likely to ensure children receive the services they need in order to get back on track for success. If schools make it a priority to consistently track and analyze warning signs, they can treat the symptoms before they become too difficult to manage or develop into more serious problems. Eagle has formed partnerships with city health and private agencies to deliver additional mental health services to our students and their families. Creating [pullquote position="right"]an environment where mental health is no longer ignored or dismissed[/pullquote]—but is evaluated and treated early and often—we can begin to shake the stigma that prevents many children from receiving treatment. By failing to prioritize the mental health of our students, generations of children have been robbed of the opportunity to achieve a life of success. Unless we act now, students will continue to fall behind in the classroom and society will continue to pay the price through higher social costs, increased crime rates and declining economic capital. We owe it to our children—and generations of children to come—to finally introduce mental health into the formula for success.

Joe Smith

Joe M. Smith, Ph.D., co-founder and chief executive officer of Eagle Academy Public Charter School, was a professor of education at the College of New Jersey for over 30 years. Smith’s research has been published in Educational Leadership, the Peabody Journal of Education, and Phi Delta Kappa.

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