Creating a System to Support Mental Health Needs in Christian Schools

Christian educators strive to help students reach their full potential and be successful in their education and service to Christ. However, the increasing mental health needs of students can present a challenge to these mission objectives. According to the American Psychological Association (APA 201), one in ten children or adolescents has a serious mental health problem and another 10% has mild to moderate problems. Although there is no specific data available for Christian schools, many leaders and school staff have noticed an increase in mental health issues among students.

In my own experience as a counselor in two different Christian schools, I have seen this increase even in the last five years. The APA also reports that there is a “lack of mental health services for children and adolescents”, with less than half of children with mental health problems receiving treatment, services, or support. Only one in five gets treatment from a mental health worker with special training to work with children. This reality is likely to be true in most Christian schools. The risks of not addressing students' mental health are significant.

Mental health problems can cause not only students to fail, but also their schools' efforts to meet their mission objectives. This is without prejudice to the legal and liability considerations that accompany these concerns. Adequate support for students in relation to a variety of mental health issues can ensure the well-being of students and that people who are in crisis receive appropriate care. Through my work in Christian education, private practice, and partial hospitalization program, I have gained a unique perspective on the many areas that support the needs of children and adolescents. I have had mental health problems that, when poorly treated, intensify and result in a high risk.

I have also had mental health problems that were detected early and I was provided with excellent supports, allowing me to develop thriving children and adolescents. These experiences and this understanding have led me to develop and translate strategies for Christian schools, in the hope that mental health problems will decrease and treatable symptoms will receive appropriate care. Rather than managing concerns on a case-by-case basis and trying to develop solutions in the moment (often stressful), a system is an organized approach that combines the needs that students present with the procedures for managing those needs. These procedures can be adapted to common situations that are specific to your population. For example, a system would list procedures and policies (“who”, “what”, “where”, when and “how”) for treating students who suffer debilitating test anxiety, who mention suicidal thoughts, who refuse to eat any food at school on a regular basis, who cannot control impulses to hit other students, or who have bathroom accidents that are not appropriate for their age (to name a few common mental health problems among students). This proactive approach has several benefits. First, a system brings together support services and preventive intervention strategies before students need them, so that they are prepared for school staff to use them.

A system also allows educators to feel equipped with the steps to follow, so that the answers are not reactive or disorganized. Students with mental health symptoms tend to have disorganized thoughts and feelings, and when the response to their experience is presented with a disorganized and uncertain response, their symptoms tend to intensify and, in turn, the sense of vulnerability of school staff may increase. Finally, addressing concerns with case-by-case solutions can be time consuming and can make it difficult, if not impossible, to track the effectiveness of how the school responds to students' mental health problems. One of the first things I noticed in the schools where I worked was a list of professional counselors that was used as a reference. It's extremely important to have it available for families. However, when I asked school staff if they knew the professionals on the list, many of them didn't.

Rather, many reported that they knew them based on what students and families said about them. I cannot stress enough the importance of building relationships with local mental health professionals and connecting with them in person. Knowing the specialty, practice, and experience of a professional is essential in deciding if their experience would be appropriate for the students and families to whom they will be referred. This creates an informed referral and a strong support team (comprised of the school and treatment provider) for the student. For one summer, I worked hard to build relationships with mental health professionals in the community when I was director of counseling services at Stony Brook School in New York.

When the school year began and the needs arose, connections to my referral sources were automatic and tracking was easy to access. This is essential for all levels of need and helps ensure consistent care in all environments (e.g., home or school).While not a panacea, these three steps are excellent elements for starting to build a school context in which mental health needs are recognized from the beginning, are proactively addressed within a system that provides appropriate support and are connected with excellent referral options. These are valuable measures to overcome mental health problems before they reach the level of risk and to continue supporting the students who are committed to our care.

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