When her son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, EDC’s Eileen Mackin was shocked and disappointed at how poorly his school handled the situation. She realized that even though 1 in 20 American children have a serious mental illness, most schools are ill-equipped to deal with the issue, and many parents do not know how best to advocate for their children’s well-being. As a result, Mackin is leading an effort to develop training and resources to help parents and schools work together to ensure that teenagers with mental health problems receive the help they need to succeed academically and socially.
“We are building lines of communication and establishing a framework for partnership between families and schools,” says Mackin. “The project gives parents essential information and helps them discover ways to interact with their child’s school as a partner. This approach is necessary if families are to feel ‘safe’ disclosing things that are painful; it gives schools the right vocabulary, tools, and training to respond appropriately, and with empathy, to students experiencing mental health issues.”
Building a strong, positive relationship between families and schools is essential if we are to wage war on the stigma and discrimination associated with youth mental illness, says Mackin. “People do not realize how many families are touched by mental illness. Some families may believe that keeping their child’s illness hidden protects the privacy of their loved one, but it perpetuates the stigma. Schools need assistance in creating a supportive school culture where it would not be detrimental to families to be open about their child’s mental health problems.” Additionally, many educators lack knowledge and understanding of the indicators of mental illness, and interpret its manifestations simply as bad behavior, as opposed to a serious, treatable medical condition, compounding the problem. The Great Minds program aims to help schools gain significant awareness and provide the training to address this dilemma.
The project, with funding from the Weyerhaeuser Family Foundation, has just created a pamphlet for parents on how they can work with their child’s school on mental health issues. It covers such topics as symptoms of mental illness in children, its impact on children’s performance at home and in school, how to talk with their child’s school, and where to seek medical and other resources and services in the community. A companion pamphlet for schools is also being developed.
The pamphlets are the first stage of a larger program that EDC will develop and implement in schools across the United States. It is designed to help families and educators cope with serious mental health disorders that often first arise during adolescence: mood and anxiety disorders, schizoaffective disorder, and schizophrenia. The multimedia program is designed to do the following:
* Educate high school staff and parents about general signs that a child may have a biologically-based, treatable mental illness. * Influence school staff’s attitudes and beliefs about “disruptive” students who have symptoms of mental health problems, and about those students’ parents. Provide guidance on and specific examples of ways to adapt teaching methods and otherwise promote the academic progress and emotional well-being of such students. * Influence parents’ attitudes and beliefs about their child’s illness and their ability to work with schools to cope with the illness and minimize harm to their child. * Connect families to helpful resources. * Improve the quality and quantity of communication between parents and staff regarding the academic and emotional needs of children with mental health problems. * Increase appropriate referrals of adolescents for professional diagnosis and treatment; improve academic outcomes and reduce failure/dropout.
Initially, in-service training will be provided to school counseling and social services staff. The staff will then use their training and program materials to educate teachers and inform parents. Included in the training materials will be a gripping documentary that captures real stories of families struggling with these issues for the first time. The program will also have a dedicated Web site that will provide materials, resources, and links to partner organizations. In addition, it will provide virtual presentations by experts and host forums for teachers, parents, and students to share information with their peers. Additional information will also be available to adolescents with mental health problems, to help them communicate better about issues related to their illness, and to reduce self-stigma.
“A lot of the tools out there look at mental illness in the abstract. Our materials include the voices of families and bring the issue to life,” says Mackin. To ensure that these materials are compelling, families, educators, and medical professionals provided input and feedback during the research and design process.
The program will be piloted in four Boston public high schools, then refined and expanded into two or three school sites in St. Louis. Schools in Memphis, Tucson, and Houston have also expressed interest in participating.
“The program lends itself to replication in other schools across the U.S.,” says Mackin. “Schools, families, and students are badly in need of this type of intervention.”
Originally published on April 30, 2007