Teachers, Here’s Your Next Assignment

Educators are tapped to help identify mental health warning signs

by Deirdre Reilly | Updated 24 Feb 2016 at 9:39 AM

Teachers have a lot on their plates — far more than simply teaching assigned curriculum. They run after-school programs, prepare students for mandatory state testing, and act as hallway, recess and cafeteria monitors.

Now they’re being asked to act as the first line of defense in student mental health screenings. If two lawmakers in Brooklyn, New York, have their way, teachers would need additional training hours so that they’re able to better spot students with mental health issues.

Assemblyman Marcus Crespo and Senator Jesse Hamilton said teachers often spend more time with students than their parents do, and are in a better position to see potential mental health problems and start the process of receiving treatment, according to the New York Daily News.

The numbers of children and adolescents with mental health issues are rising.

Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety and depression are both treatable, but 80 percent of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60 percent of kids with diagnosable depression are not getting treatment. That's according to the 2015 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report.

"I think it’s a good idea," a Boston-area mom of three said of the New York legislation. "More information is better, right? There is one caveat, however — parents must be the first to know of any potential problems, and they are the decision-makers in any treatment that might be suggested. Parents need to remain the authority figures and decision-makers in their kids’ life."

"We are very supportive of this training," Glenn Liebman, executive director of the Mental Health Association in New York State, told LifeZette.

"We are true believers in collecting a wealth of information and resources on behalf of students, which would now including the ability of teachers to pick up on the signals of a student who may be heading into a crisis. The legislation proposes eight additional hours of continuing education for teachers, focusing on mental health."

Los Angeles psychologist Shaelyn Pham is not thrilled with the idea, on the other hand. "Having school teachers trained as a ‘first line of defense’ in mental health screenings for students is an interesting idea on paper," she told LifeZette. "But the role of a teacher is to teach subject matter to our children. It's not their job to be a mental health clinician, even if it is just performing a screening."

Said Liebman, "The intent of the bill is not to make teachers clinicians, just to have them be more cognizant of mental health symptoms in their students. They can then make better referrals, which will ultimately lead to better care."

"If the supporting factor in this legislation is because teachers spend more time with the children than their parents do, then there’s something inherently wrong with this picture," said Pham. "Instead of coming up with an intervention, perhaps it may be worthwhile to look into some of the factors that could be the cause of mental health issues in children. Could it be possible that parents are not spending enough time with their children?"

One Boston elementary school teacher laughed when she heard of the proposed plan. "We’re already doing this," she told LifeZette. "Every day we are working with kids with a myriad of needs — from hunger to inability to focus, stress and general lack of coping skills. I’m all for training, but you could say we have on-the-job training, and we don’t ever hesitate to make referrals."

"Let teachers do what they're good at: teach," said Pham. "School counselors and school psychologists could acquire additional skills in mental health to be better advocates and provide better resources. Ultimately, parents have to be responsible for the well-being of their kids and do what is necessary to provide what is best for their children."

She added, "We can't negate this role to any other authorities in children's lives."

  1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America
  2. Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report
  3. Health
  4. mental health
  5. new york
  6. New York Daily News
  7. school counselor
  8. school psychologist
  9. Shaelyn Pham
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