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Mental Health Services for Elementary Schools Become Reality

by Terri Harel, published

Just days before the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Milpitas Unified School District in Northern California approved a $104,000 contract with Palo Alto-based non-profit that will provide mental health services for elementary schools. The organization, called Counseling and Support Services for Youth, will provide emotional and social counseling to six elementary schools in the district. The initiative is the product of growing concern among parents, officials, and teachers that youth mental health support is lacking but essential to providing children a full spectrum of opportunity, education, and a stable future.

A National Institute of Mental Health study from January 2011 notes a large majority of youth in need of mental health services are not receiving it. As schools fall further victim to budget cuts, students suffer the consequences in all areas from teacher support to important programs that include mental health services. The study concludes:

"About 36 percent of youth with any lifetime mental disorder received services, and only half of these youth who were severely impaired by their mental disorder received professional mental health treatment. The majority (68 percent) of the children who did receive services had fewer than six visits with a provider over their lifetime."

Services are more widespread and available to students in middle school and high school, but that might be too little too late. Mental health services for elementary schools are shown to prevent mental health complications into adolescence. Not only is elementary-age counseling demonstrated to improve academic performance, improve school environment, prevent severe disciplinary action, and reduce special education needs for students, but it is also cost-beneficial to school districts. Early intervention generates savings in public expenditures for special education, social services, and corrections/criminal justice costs.

At a Board meeting in November, School Board Vice President Marsha Grilli said, "We're providing services for our middle schools and high schools but half of our students are in elementary. And we talk about early intervention for their academics but we need to talk about interventions for other issues also." The school district plans to enact the program on both a reactive and proactive basis, meaning that teachers and administrators will be identifying academic and emotional issues within the classroom and then sending a student to counseling, as well as intervening during perceived times of crisis. The district says that the combination preventative and intervening methods should create a comprehensive mental health program beneficial to their elementary school students into adolescence.

The move takes place as mental health enters the national spotlight, in particular the long-term ramifications of isolation and lack of mental health support in youth.

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