To help students, legislators should tackle toxic stress

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

High school classes can be daunting. Our next generation of parents, voters, teachers, entrepreneurs, and scientists contend with quadratic equations, analytic essays, lessons on constitutional rights and more.

When students are also burdened by the fear of losing a mother with cancer, the trauma of past sexual assault, the accumulated toxic stress of a chaotic childhood, or the weight of other mental health difficulties, those classes can quickly go from challenging to nearly impossible — if proper mental health support isn't available.

As state legislators begin interim hearings in the House and Senate education committees and the House Select Committee on Mental Health, they should evaluate opportunities to ensure more students have the mental health support they need both to succeed in the classroom and to get a jump on emerging psychiatric concerns that could grow in adulthood. Policymakers can start by considering successful efforts in communities around the state.

The Austin school district, for example, is expanding on-campus mental health services after a successful effort at Crockett High School. At a recent event we co-hosted with the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, Crockett's principal explained that providing therapy to students was one of the key reasons the school's attendance and graduation rates have soared in recent years. Taylor, Hutto and Spring Branch school districts are just a few examples of other Texas districts that have embraced strategies such as mental health training for their staff and partnering with local mental health service providers.

According to national research, as many as 44 percent of students with mental health concerns drop out of high school. In addition to relatively rare mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, and more common challenges such as severe depression or anxiety, researchers have learned that many young people also need assistance to overcome brain-altering toxic stress resulting from childhood neglect, trauma, or hunger, just as military veterans with PTSD require support to deal with the invisible scars from the battlefield.

If left untreated, those mental health challenges affect all students. For example, in a class of 20 students, two students have mental health concerns that severely interfere with their ability to function, according to national averages. When those mental health concerns show up as academic and behavioral difficulties, they can distract the teacher from meeting the needs of the rest of the class.

While a growing number of school leaders are focusing on student mental health because of the educational impact, mental health professionals are also cheering this student focus as a way to address adult mental health challenges. Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14 — and 75 percent by age 24.

We have the ability to help young people with mental health challenges. Research shows after children receive comprehensive community mental health services, they improve their grades and cut down on school suspensions and expulsions. The challenge is that years often pass between when symptoms first emerge and when the young person first gets treatment. Many factors contribute to this delay, including mislabeling symptoms as misbehavior or delinquency and a lack of access to effective services. Because school personnel spend so much time with students, they are well-positioned to identify those who show signs of concern and connect them and their families with the help they may need.

The current patchwork of local efforts is a good start, but it's no substitute for a statewide plan to ensure that schools and communities have the resources they need to address student mental health. Fortunately, Texas is now poised to address this issue in a thoughtful, statewide manner. Last session, the Legislature addressed the identification of student mental health needs through multiple bills to improve training of school personnel, although it didn't begin to work on school-based services for the students who need help.

Now that those bills have passed, and there are successful local student health models to draw on, state leaders can take the next step by working with policy experts, educators and community leaders to develop an effective strategy to improve the mental health of our students and future leaders.

Josette Saxton is a Senior Policy Associate for Children's Mental Health for Texans Care for Children.