I wrote many moons ago (September to be exact), about a new kind of poverty my students are facing. One that prevents them from being successful in schools. One that has nothing to do with money, income or jobs. Low-income students suffer from a poverty of social and emotional well-being. Poverty is defined as “a state of deprivation” and my students are often deprived of the ability to regulate emotion due to the traumatic experiences they have had. Even worse, there is little to no access to mental health services and counseling for low-income students and their families.
In my school in Charlotte, I saw this all too often. Students who were referred for a diagnostic evaluation were offered an appointment six weeks from the date they called–and that was if they were lucky. In the meantime, they were expected to continue functioning at 100% and continue being successful at school, as if they weren’t fighting a a potentially insurmountable and debilitating disease every day. I think you can agree this is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a child or teenager.
Mental health is the next crisis facing our country. Mental illness does not discriminate based on gender, race or income. It does not come quietly, and does not go easily. Many times, the process of finding successful treatments for mental health illnesses is months long and requires many evaluation and follow-up appointments, as well as incredibly expensive medication. How then, do we combat mental illness and build social-emotional strength for low-income students on a daily basis?
Although not a silver bullet, one of the things I love most about my school is the way we tackle this exact issue. We have many students who have very high ACE scores from trauma they experienced during childhood. There are five ACE trauma events that are personal to the child, including various types of neglect and abuse and five related to family members of that child. This latter category includes things we see often in our students such as disappearance of a family member (whether due to divorce, death or abandonment), mental illness or abuse of a family member or incarceration of a family member. Students who have an ACE score of 4 or more are at an increased risk of developing depression (over 450% more likely) and suicide (over 1200% more likely). Many students at my school fall into this category.
To combat this, our school has two full time social workers and several interns that come in each day. More importantly, these social workers run group therapy sessions during school to give students the support they need, with students they know and feel comfortable around, right during the school day. Now that I am in a school where this social-emotional support exists, it it hard for me to fathom why every school doesn’t have a similar system. (My guess would be funding, though–looking at you, state of Illinois government).
Nearly every day, our social workers are stretched to the max in supporting our students. This past Tuesday, we received the heartbreaking news that a former student from our school had committed suicide the previous day. We found out in an emergency meeting the next morning and there was already a plan in place to support our students emotionally that day. There were extra social workers pulled in for the day and a lesson in homeroom focused on grief, recognizing depression and looking out for those around us. It made a long, emotionally trying day more bearable knowing that there was a social worker on hand for the student who just fell apart during my second block.
While my students are incredibly lucky to have these supports, what will happen to my seniors when they graduate and go to college? Will they have the resources they need on campus? I worry even more for the millions of students sitting in classrooms across the country struggling with mental illness, with no where to turn. Trying to cope on one’s own and keep up with school work is exhausting and no child or adult should have to suffer in silence.
I told my students who were grieving this week that the best way to honor the memory of their friend was to speak out about mental illness and speak up to support those who are struggling. I urged my seniors who can vote for the first time to step away from the media coverage of candidates and find out which candidate has a plan to tackle one of the biggest issues our country is not discussing nearly enough: mental illness.
It is my hope that one of the candidates will create a plan for social-emotional support for all students in schools, where they spend the majority of their time.
Whoever that candidate is, they have my vote. And I hope they have yours, too. The future of our country, and the happiness of ourselves, our friends, our family, and all those around us could depend on it.
It is not well with my soul.
If you would like to learn more about ACE scores and their effects on children, visit this site.