Lessons Learned from Working with a District's Mental Health Unit

By Taylor, Linda; Adelman, Howard S. | Childhood Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Lessons Learned from Working with a District's Mental Health Unit


Taylor, Linda, Adelman, Howard S., Childhood Education


Although schools are not in the health business, it is evident they must address mental health and psychosocial concerns whenever such matters interfere with students' learning. From this perspective, mental health in schools is not some extraneous and separate agenda, but rather an integral facet of achieving the educational mission. A comprehensive, multifaceted, and integrated component for addressing barriers to learning and enhancing healthy development (Adelman & Taylor, 1993, 1999; Taylor & Adelman, 1996) is needed that embeds mental health in a continuum of interventions, ranging from systems for positive development and prevention of problems, systems of early intervention to address problems as soon after onset as feasible, and systems of care for those with chronic and severe problems (see p. 261).

Given the need to focus on mental health, the question shifts to how schools and school districts should understand and pursue mental health. This article shares a personal perspective on school mental health through a discussion of the ways that schools currently address mental health, an example of advancing such work through a school district mental health unit, and reflection on some important lessons learned. Our intent is to stimulate thinking about ways to enhance mental health in schools.

RANGE OF DELIVERY MECHANISMS AND FORMATS FOR PROVIDING MENTAL HEALTH IN SCHOOLS

What does providing mental health in schools mean? Ask five people and you will probably get five different answers, based largely on the respondents' personal experiences. As outlined in the Appendix, analyses of initiatives across the United States suggest that five delivery mechanisms are used to provide mental health programs/services in schools (Policy Leadership Cadre for Mental Health in Schools, 2001). These mechanisms vary in format and differ in focus and comprehensiveness, but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The focus may be on treatment of mental health and psychosocial problems, prevention of such problems, or promotion of mental health (e.g., healthy social and emotional development). In terms of comprehensiveness, the emphasis may be mainly on providing clinical treatment and/or providing a referral. Or, the intent may be to develop a full continuum of programs and services to promote positive development, prevent problems, respond as early after onset as is feasible, and offer treatment (Adelman & Taylor, 1998a).

Most school districts employ student support or "pupil services" professionals, such as school psychologists, counselors, and social workers. These personnel perform services connected with mental health and psychosocial problems (including related services designated for special education students). The format usually is a combination of centrally based and school-based services (Adelman, 1996; Adelman & Taylor, 1997).

Increasingly, schools have developed connections with community agencies. Whether initiated by the community or the school, this delivery mechanism is intended to increase access to mental health services and, in some formats, to enhance coordination among services provided to students and their families (Taylor & Adelman, 2000a).

Most schools include, in some facet of the curriculum, ways to enhance social and emotional functioning. Specific instructional activities may be designed to promote healthy social and emotional development and/or prevent psychosocial problems, such as behavior and emotional problems, school violence, and drug abuse. Mental health is incorporated into schools through general instructional processes and special assistance strategies. Teachers who are sensitive to the importance of promoting social and emotional development can integrate such a focus seamlessly into their daily interactions with students.

A few school districts have begun to reconceptualize the fragmented approaches to addressing barriers that interfere with students' learning. …

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