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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Mental illness in school: What can teachers do?

A high school teacher might see eight to 30 students a day with serious mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, writes Michael Goldstein on FutureEd. The teacher doesn’t necessarily know who’s headed for trouble and who’s just struggling with “normal adolescent angst.”

Many teachers try to support and engage distressed students, he writes. They praise what ever they can. They reach out. “Hey you seem down, do you want to talk about it?”

A teacher might mentor one, two or three students in a given year, he writes, but eager rookies don’t know what to say and experienced teachers probably have been “burned or disappointed multiple times in their careers.”

Students who are distressed, but not disruptive, may “fly under the radar,” Goldstein writes. Teachers often refer a troubled student for counseling, but there may be no counseling slots or no parental permission.

If the student does receive counselor, the teacher typically “receives no update from the counselor, because of arguably misguided views on privacy.”

Finally, counseling may not help.

Counseling isn’t magic even when done by the best in the field, and the counseling skill found in schools is wildly uneven; often teachers do not see changes in student behavior, and lose faith in the school’s counselors. Other times, the school claims to have programs—small “Advisory Groups” for example, where teachers could help distressed students—but most teachers find these programs uneven, and they’re not meant to provide clinical help.

Some private schools provide excellent mental health services, he writes. “But suburban public schools typically have a more modest set-up, and high-poverty schools tend to have even less.”

Goldstein, a FutureEd senior fellow is the founder of Boston’s Match Education.

Two years after Columbine, my daughter interned in the school violence office of the California Department of Education. She put information on counseling and other violence prevention programs on the web site, with information on how to get grants to pay for it. Then she was asked to report on the efficacy of the various violence prevention programs. She found no evidence any of the programs were effective — or ineffective — in preventing violence. The research hadn’t been done or hadn’t produced useful results.

Anthony Borges, 15, who was shot five times while shielding his Douglas High classmates, is suing the counselors who treated Nikolas Cruz, reports BuzzFeed News.

Borges, who’s credited with saving 20 students by barring a classroom door, is out of the hospital, in a wheelchair. His family also plans to sue the school district (and a host of others) for negligence.

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