Schools Often First Line of Defense in Identifying, Treating Kids with Mental Illness
Jones, Barbara, Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
They teach kids to read, write and solve math problems, and to work and play well with others.
And along with those lessons, educators are increasingly being trained to spot depression, anxiety and other troubling behaviors in their students, with administrators and teachers forming the first line of defense against mental illness.
"We provide psychiatric first aid," said Ailleth Tom, who coordinates crisis counseling and mental health services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "We really listen, protect and connect students with services.
"We don't ask, 'What's wrong with you?"' she said. "We ask, 'What's happened to you?"'
Speculation about the mental health of the 20-year-old gunman in the Connecticut school shootings has focused attention on the need for the early treatment of troubling behavior in the nation's adolescents and teens.
Los Angeles Unified has long partnered with local law enforcement agencies and mental health experts in Los Angeles County, where crisis- and threat-assessment teams evaluate student activity that could potentially lead to violence.
Within Los Angeles Unified, experts train principals and faculty to watch for early warning signs so kids can get help before more serious conditions develop. Any new insights that develop from the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy will be incorporated into future professional development sessions, officials say.
"We all are very aware of the school's role in identifying problems a student may be having. We do feel that responsibility," said Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents about 3,000 principals and assistants principals in LAUSD.
With 600,000 students, LAUSD has a cadre of 300 psychiatric social workers who refer students to mental health professionals or, in some cases, hold group or individual therapy sessions on campus for kids struggling with emotional traumas like divorce, death, illness or abuse.
"They're completely busy all of the time," Superintendent John Deasy said. "There are not enough of them to deal with the problems."
Mental health services are also offered at eight clinics operated jointly by LAUSD and Los Angeles County. Sites include clinics next to Daniel Pearl High School in Lake Balboa, and at Cabrillo Elementary in San Pedro.
Christine MacInnis, a counselor at North High in the Torrance Unified School District, said counselors do not wait for students in distress to come to them.
"Half come to me on their own, and the other half are referred through a parent, teacher, coach or administrator," she said. "Teachers are probably our first line of defense, because they are the ones with them all day."
The most common warning signs are sudden changes in behavior or appearance. A strong student may lose interest in his studies, for instance, or a snappy dresser may start coming to school looking disheveled.
If Torrance High counselors suspect that a student is a danger to himself or others, they call in a Los Angeles County psychiatric evaluation team. In the extremely rare event that a child is perceived to be a threat to others, law enforcement is also notified.
In 2011-12, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health conducted more than 4,200 threat assessments involving the region's school districts, a spokeswoman said. The agency's Emergency Outreach Bureau also held some five dozen training sessions for educators, law-enforcement, parents and students.
The Sandy Hook tragedy unfolded as many school districts were preparing for winter break. Nevertheless, officials began reviewing their own operations to determine whether they needed to do more to keep campuses safe.
San Bernardino City Unified, for instance, formed a task force that includes officers from the San Bernardino and Cal State San Bernardino police forces, along with members of local churches and service clubs. …