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Mental Health in Schools: A Role for School Resource Officers

By Laura Usher, NAMI CIT Program Manager

In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, NAMI has been flooded with questions about how to recognize when a young person has an emerging mental health condition and how to keep schools safe. We’ve responded with resources on what to do when a child might have a mental illness and strong advocacy for the early identification of mental health conditions. The early treatment of mental illness helps children and youth stay on track in school and meet developmental milestones. With support, young people with mental health conditions can succeed in school, get a job and maintain healthy relationships.

The risk of violence by people living with mental illness, especially children, is very low. Myths and perceptions to the contrary are driven by misunderstanding and fear. Still, schools and communities want to know how to keep everyone safe and how to respond effectively in a crisis. Many mental health crises can be prevented, especially if schools, parents and community members know what to look for. Schools can start by training staff on the early warning signs of mental health conditions and connecting children and youth exhibiting those warning signs with mental health services. Children and youth spend the majority of their waking hours in school, and staying in school is crucial to their success.

Unfortunately, these are not new issues for NAMI. In 2009, NAMI embarked on an effort to expand CIT for Youth programs, which equip school resource officers (SROs) with skills to recognize mental health concerns, safely de-escalate a crisis and work with schools, parents and children’s mental health providers to link students with mental health care. As part of that effort, NAMI sat down with SROs to get their perspective on the mental health needs of children and youth in schools.

Their input and ideas, published in this report, echo the concerns we hear from families and community members around the country. They said:

Schools are overwhelmed and struggle to respond to the mental health needs of youth. School counselors focus primarily on testing and college preparation, not mental health needs, and teachers often don’t know how to cope when a child’s behavior changes due to a mental health condition.
Mental health needs are not addressed early, so school based officers and school leaders frequently encounter children who are in crisis, self-injuring or suicidal. Although they can often recognize a crisis, they do not feel adequately trained to respond and there are not adequate services to help a child in crisis.
There are not enough psychiatrists, psychologists and case managers to provide services and supports to youth. And when a child is able to get an appointment, lack of transportation and other barriers make it difficult for the family to get the child to the appointment.
Families need more support. They are often overwhelmed and don’t know how to cope with a child’s changing behavior. They also do not know how to get mental health services for their children.

These SROs have identified the key issues that schools, law enforcement, mental health provider agencies and families are struggling with and need to work together to address.

As part of his post-Sandy Hook policy initiatives, President Obama is calling for an increase in the number of SROs in schools. This proposal has led to concern from many that SROs in schools will increase the number of students involved in the juvenile justice system, and that arming school-based officers will make schools less safe. These are legitimate concerns because far too many youth get caught up in the “school to prison pipeline” when their needs and behavior are not addressed proactively. Fortunately, SROs, when well-trained to respond to a mental health crisis, can play a vital role in ensuring that students get the help they need and school environments are positive, healthy and conducive to learning. SROs should not be working alone; entire communities need to come together to help meet the needs of youth with mental health conditions. When schools, provider agencies and law enforcement work together, and provide adequate training and support to respond to youth in crisis, SROs can be powerful allies in linking children and youth to needed services.

To learn more about NAMI’s position on a variety of issues, check out our Public Policy Platform. To learn more about responding to children and you with mental health needs, visit our CIT for Youth Resource Center.

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