More Tools to Help Students with Mental Health Challenges

This commentary appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

  Robin Williams as a young boy.

Robin Williams as a young boy.

As teachers are getting to know their new students, how many of them are discovering a Robin Williams or two in their class? They might look like the class clown, or the honors student, or the kid who’s already falling behind. Maybe their star doesn’t shine quite as brightly as the beloved comedian’s, and hopefully it doesn’t burn out as tragically. But, like Robin Williams, many students can tap into their God-given talents if the adults in their lives help them manage their mental health, or they can run into serious, or even tragic, trouble. Fortunately, starting this year, teachers have more resources to identify and help these students.

It might be surprising to learn that a man as talented, successful and full of life as Robin Williams was battling a mental illness. Misunderstanding and stigma surrounds mental illness, yet it is an illness like any other. Like cancer, it doesn’t discriminate. The road to recovery can be long and hard, but it is possible to get there. Like diabetes, mental illness may require lifelong management, but with access to the right treatment, information and support, many people with a mental health diagnosis succeed in the classroom, on the job and in life.

Symptoms of mental illness often emerge during childhood. Half of the cases of chronic mental illness begin to appear by age 14. Like other illnesses, it’s better to identify and treat mental illness early instead of waiting until the illness progresses. Yet, on average, it takes 10 years from the onset of symptoms for children to begin receiving help for their mental illness. For many, those are very long, hard years, during which symptoms of their illness can wreak havoc on their lives and on those around them. Tragically, for some, those years end in suicide.

We can change this. We need to recognize when kids are struggling in ways that go beyond typical adolescent moodiness, misbehavior or angst. We need to help kids and families figure out where they can get expert help, if necessary. We need to intervene so kids can do the things they need to do as they grow into adulthood. And we need to support all kids in building resilience and growing emotionally strong and well.

Fortunately, the Legislature passed a law last year requiring teachers to receive basic training in identifying and responding to students who may be at risk of harm due to a potential mental health concern. Educators in Texas middle and high schools can access a brief online interactive suicide prevention training at no cost. Lawmakers also set up a program to help people access in-person mental health first aid training that teaches adults simple strategies on how to approach and help a youth showing signs of concern. Teachers can access this training at no cost, too.

Anyone who lives or works with kids can benefit from this type of training. Austin Travis County Integral Care, Bluebonnet Trails Community Services or Hill Country MHDD Centers can connect interested Texans with these resources.

We’re not talking about training people to diagnose or treat kids. That’s a job for trained professionals. But we can all help our youth by being aware, lending a caring ear and encouraging them to seek help when needed. It’s a straightforward yet powerful way to make an incredible — and possibly lifesaving — difference in a child’s life.

Josette Saxton is mental health policy associate for Texans Care for Children.