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Society's Obligations

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By Kwok-Sze Wong, Ed.D., Executive Director, American School Counselor Association (ASCA)

I've believed for many years that failures in the public education system aren't educational problems but societal problems. Of course the current educational system is not perfect, but it cannot be held totally accountable for many of the current criticisms, such as low student performance compared to other countries.

The United States leads the world in teen pregnancy rates, divorce rates, incidence of substance abuse and prison rates. When those societal problems impose themselves into our schools, they become barriers that keep our students from learning, so students cannot be expected to achieve to optimum levels.

And last week we were tragically reminded of two other statistics. The United States has the highest number of guns per capita in the world and, not surprisingly, the highest number of gun-related violent acts. The United States also has the highest rate of untreated or undertreated mental illness in the world.

Enacting common-sense gun safety laws is justifiably receiving most of the attention. However, we should not forget that almost every mass shooting in recent history was perpetrated by a gunman who was suffering from a mental illness.

A simple solution is to make sure people with mental illness do not have access to guns. However, we can't keep guns out of their hands if we don't know who they are. Even mental health and psychology experts agree it would be difficult if not impossible to identify everyone with a psychological disorder and then to predict those who may commit violent crimes. We as a society can and must take several actions.

First, we must lift the veil of stigmatism from mental illness. Condemning or blaming people with psychological disorders is like blaming people with cancer or heart disease for getting sick. They didn't choose to be that way, and their illness is as real as any physical illness. And like cancer or heart disease, ignoring it will only lead to worse problems later.

Second, we must ensure people with mental illness have adequate treatment and support. This means making sure there are sufficient care providers to provide treatment, adequate funding or insurance coverage and access to appropriate care when people need it.

Third, we must focus attention on mental health, not just mental illness. This would not only help people lead healthier lives, it also would provide early identification of those with deeper problems. Mental wellness services are typically provided by clergy and counselors or clinics in the community. For children and adolescents, they are most often provided in schools by pupil support personnel such as school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers. Unfortunately, schools often do not have sufficient resources to support the entire student population adequately.

The magnitude of the problem is sobering and the possible consequences for not taking these actions are frightening:

  • Four million children and adolescents suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, school and with peers. Of children 9 to 17 years old, 21 percent have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment. However, only 20 percent of children with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services each year.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 15 to 24. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined. More than 90 percent of children and adolescents who die by suicide have a mental disorder. States spend nearly $1 billion annually on medical costs associated with deaths by suicides and suicide attempts by youth up to 20 years of age.
  • Approximately 50 percent of students age 14 and older who are living with a mental illness drop out of high school. This is the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
  • Youth with unidentified and untreated mental disorders go to jail and prison at substantially higher rates than the general population; 65 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls in juvenile detention have at least one mental illness. We are incarcerating youth living with mental illness, some as young as 8 years old, rather than identifying their conditions early and intervening with appropriate treatment.

Despite effective treatments, there are long delays between the first onset of symptoms and when people seek and receive treatment. An untreated mental disorder can lead to a more severe illness and to the development of co-occurring mental illnesses, both of which are more difficult to treat.

As a society, we have many obligations to the future generations. These include keeping them safe and helping them prepare to take responsibility for this planet when the current generations are gone. We also have obligations to provide for the physical and mental health of our children. If we neglect either one, we endanger all generations. Those are problems that can't be fixed by schools alone.


Statistics courtesy of the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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