The Application of a Strengths-Based Mental Health Approach in Schools

By Koller, James R.; Svoboda, Sara K. | Childhood Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Application of a Strengths-Based Mental Health Approach in Schools


Koller, James R., Svoboda, Sara K., Childhood Education


The mental health needs of children and adolescents in the United States have received increased attention over the course of the last decade. Emerging evidence strongly suggests that a greater number of the nation's youth are experiencing significant mental health problems. In fact, Surgeon General David Satcher (2001), in the report titled National Action Agenda for Children's Mental Health, stated that the United States is currently facing a public crisis in mental health for children and adolescents. According to this report, 1 in 10 children and adolescents in the United States suffers from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment. Even more disconcerting, an overwhelming 70 percent of children today reportedly receive inappropriate mental health services, or do not receive services at all (Tashman, Waxman, Nabors, & Weist, 1998). While the prevention of mental disorders in children and adolescents has become a concern for federal and state agencies (Greenberg, Domitrovich, & Bumbarger, 2000), the gap between children who need mental health services and those that receive services remains large (Weist, 1999).

With this recognition, coupled with the fact that many of these individuals fail to receive appropriate intervention services before their problems escalate, state and national policymakers and mental health professionals alike are searching for ways to bring about change. One such movement involves a paradigm shift from mental illness (pathology) to mental health (a strengths-based approach)--in other words, focusing on what is "right" with the child versus what is "wrong." They are also exploring how to construct a positive environment that allows not only learning, but also mental health to flourish. Given that the typical child spends the majority of his or her day in school, this paradigm shift must involve the school. Increasingly, school personnel, including general education teachers, are being recognized as people who can help bring preventive mental health services to children in need.

According to Doll (1996), a school of 1,000 students could be expected to have between 180 and 220 students at any given time with diagnosable psychiatric disorders. In a survey completed by over 100 principals in 1994, an overwhelming 88 percent of the respondents indicated that their school served students with special needs. Of this percentage, an alarming 94 percent reported that children in their schools had mental health problems (Heneghan & Malakoff, 1997).

Although it is debatable whether most school administrators recognize the mental health concerns of their students as a problem that needs to be addressed on a par with other education issues (Heneghan & Malakoff, 1997), teachers, who engage in more direct and daily contact with students, are increasingly concerned (Adelman & Taylor, 2000). Teachers are asking for help in dealing with potential mental health problems on a daily basis before they escalate (Adelman & Taylor, 2000). At stake here is the issue of prevention for all children, not just those placed in special education. How prepared, however, are teachers to recognize signs of impending mental health problems? Has their undergraduate training prepared them to be effective advocates? Do they really want to deal with mental health issues? Aside from teaching academic content, are teachers, both at the preservice and inservice levels, knowledgeable about applying psychosocial research to the situations they face in today's troubled society? Are school administrators any more knowledgeable? Can they offer useful advice? According to a recent survey, 91 percent of master level teachers sampled did not feel their own undergraduate education prepared them well enough to handle both classroom and other work-related situations in their school environment, aside from their own specific teaching content specialty (Cramer & Paris, 2001). …

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