The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explained that the Affordable Care Act provided $200 million in funding to support school-based health centers. These centers are usually operated through a collaboration between schools and hospital community health centers. SBHCs provide children with chronic illnesses the ability to go to school while still caring for their conditions, and they also offer dental services and screenings, education on nutrition, substance abuse counseling and mental heath and behavioral services.
Children spend so much of their day in school that it makes sense for there to be programs in place to look out for their health. Children with some mental health conditions may go undiagnosed without the help of school-based health care professionals who are trained to spot the subtle signs of psychiatric problems and treat them accordingly.
Examples of a working program
As part of it’s SBHC, New York City offers school-based mental health programs. The NYC Department of Education explained that there are many reasons why this program is important. For example, it can help keep mental health problems from affecting a child’s emotional, academic, or physical development. Furthermore, it can help prevent the development of long-term problems while simultaneously helping kids improve their academic performances and personal relationships.
The NYC Department of Education went on to explain the type of services school-based mental health centers can offer children. The first goal of these centers is to identify children who may have mental health needs. Once a child has been assessed properly and his or her mental health issue has been identified, professionals at a school-based mental health center can conduct an intervention with the family to come up with a plan for the child. One of the most important things these centers can do is train both teachers and parents on how to spot mental health issues in children.
Furthermore, the NYC Department of Education believes in the benefits of these programs, and that they truly work. The department explained that these programs can help provide mental health care to children who live in areas where these types of services may be scarce. These kinds of mental health initiatives may also help remove the stigma surrounding psychiatric problems by encouraging parents to address issues they see in their children, rather than simply sweeping them under the rug.
Controversy surrounds these centers
However, not everyone is on board with the idea of SBHCs, specifically the mental health aspects of these programs. The Associated Press reported that some people have expressed concern that these programs could lead to students being over-diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and then having to spend the rest of their lives with the stigma of having an illness.
“People have to be very cautious when they are talking cavalierly about screening these kids. How do people feel if they are over-identify or under-identify? … The consequences to that are big,” Linda Juszczak, president of the School-Based Health Alliance, a group that advocates for school clinics, told the Associated Press.
Furthermore, other people are concerned about what the next step will be if a school-based mental health program discovers that a child has an issue that they cannot treat.
“Once we screen and assess and discover the need, I think it’s our responsibility to have the resources in place to service every one of those needs that are uncovered,” Denise Wheatley-Rowe, of Behavioral Health System Baltimore, told the Associated Press.
It is important to note that parents who do not want their children to participate in SBHCs at their schools have options as well. For example, in the New York City program, parents must sign a consent form in order for any services to be provided to their kids.
Recognizing a serious need
The Associated Press also spoke to mental health professionals who believe it’s necessary for schools to start doing more to address the mental health needs of their students.
“We have [schools] screening for all kinds of rare infectious diseases and then we don’t screen for common behavioral disorders that are costly to the individual, the family and society in terms of health care utilization, crime cost and high risk of death … it doesn’t make any sense from a public health perspective,” Mike Dennis, of Chestnut Health Systems in Normal, Ill., told the news source.
The Associated Press pointed out that there are already many school districts throughout the U.S. that are offering comprehensive mental health programs. For example, in South Florida, teachers have been screening children who are as young as ages 5 or 6 for psychiatric issues. They conduct these screenings by filling out a short questionnaire provided to them by mental health professionals that is designed to determine if kindergartners may show the early signs of illness.
It is important for people to understand that there is a serious need in this country for more initiatives to help children with mental health problems live normal, healthy lives. The U.S. Surgeon General states that an estimated 10 percent of children and adolescents in America have mental health problems that are serious enough to negatively impact their daily lives.