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Helping schools spot mental illness

young kids playing with toys on floor
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio
One in five kids will, at one point, struggle with mental illness. Can schools get better at spotting them?

Every time we see still another story about school violence, we ask the same question: why wasn’t anyone able to stop it?

With still more school violence in the news this week, three Michigan school districts are splitting a $2 million grant to spot and treat mental illness in students.

Saginaw, Houghton Lake and Detroit’s Education Achievement Authority are getting this aid specifically because they're struggling with student mental health or safety issues, according to state and local data.

Kyle Guerrant is in charge of school support services for the Michigan Department of Education.

"We're not asking teachers to be the first and last line of support in this area,” he says. “But we are trying to give them skills and knowledge for what that behavior might look like.”

Warning signs that aren't always warning signs

Lots of other states have tried something that sounds kind of like this.

And it’s not hard to see why. Teachers spend a ton of time with kids compared to, say, their family doctor.

They may know their parents, be in regular contact with them, and have some general understanding of family dynamics.

And because of the sheer number of kids teachers likely work with over a career, they’re almost guaranteed to run into a child who has mental illness.

That's because one in five children will, at some point, have a debilitating mental illness, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Maybe you’ve seen network news stories about training offered by the American Psychiatric Foundation called Typical or Troubled?

Among other things, it gives teachers a list of warning signs. The APF stresses that for kids with mental illness, these aren’t one-time issues, they’re regular behavior patterns that can stretch over several weeks.

But when you look at the list of behaviors, it’s easy to see why it’s hard to spot the kids who are seriously troubled – and the ones who are just, you know, kids.

The list includes: persistent nightmares, unusual behaviors, frequent bursts of anger, aggression, many physical complaints, sexual acting out.

Mental issues don't look the same in each community

I called up the people giving Michigan this $2 million grant, and they wanted to stress this point: they are NOT going to give teachers a list of behaviors and expect them to keep an eye out.

Michelle Bechard works with schools around the country in her job at SAMHSA, aka Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Bechard says this grant basically allows schools to work with the state to figure out exactly how they want to use this money.

Maybe they’ll hire more guidance counselors.

Or they could bring in community mental health workers, have them spend time in classrooms and with families.

Or, the money could go towards getting a clear lineup of what mental health resources are actually available in the community – so that a family whose kid is struggling doesn’t have to go to multiple agencies to figure out what help is available.

Kyle Guerrant, of the Michigan Department of Education, says that flexibility is especially important given how different each district is.

"[Sometimes] safety is an issue. [Or] Access to mental health and physical health services is an issue,” he says. “Substance abuse is an issue. And that affects a student's ability to be ready and engaged."

But. What if the worst does happen – are schools then on the hook somehow, because they didn’t spot trouble despite training, resources and money to do just that?

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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