With school shootings, prescription drug abuse, childhood depression, and other signs of youth distress making headlines, schools are grappling with mental health issues in ways they never have before. As director of the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention at EDC, Deborah Haber helps districts across the country develop effective health programs and policies.
Headlines suggest that mental illness is on the rise. Do you agree?
I don’t think so. I think there has been a consistent problem that has been ignored. Data show that 20 percent of youth are involved with a mental health issue. The challenge is recognizing the problem early and getting help. Otherwise, it goes untreated or gets mislabeled—and gets worse. For some kids, the first time they get mental health services is when they land in the juvenile justice system.
Tell us more about the National Center.
We help more than 150 districts across the country create safe and healthy schools. The districts are funded by the federal government to develop comprehensive health programs, and we support them on multiple levels—from designing and implementing programs, to evaluating their success, to planning for sustainability. We provide training, an array of online learning opportunities, and site visits. We have an active Web site with useful tools and materials. We also conduct teleconferences and host national conferences on important topics, like truancy, juvenile re-entry, or engaging community partners.
The greatest strength of our center lies with our technical assistance specialists. Our staff members are seasoned—they have experience in the community, on the ground. Each one is assigned to specific districts and keeps in close touch with them through telephone conferences, e-mail, and site visits.
How can schools take on mental health with everything else they have to do?
More and more educators acknowledge that unless you attend to mental health, children will be left behind. For instance, in Hillsboro, Oregon, there is a fabulous truancy prevention program where the school, the truancy officers, the police department, and mental health services work together. They managed to reduce truancy and increase academic success for a lot of students. In San Diego, staff created a school-based mental health center that is supported in part by the county. These programs are making a big difference.
How do you get teens to listen to health-oriented information?
You don’t start with teens—you have to reach kids early. Some of our programs help preschools establish a positive school environment. That means everything from ensuring that the building is safe, to establishing a fair discipline policy, to setting high standards for how adults speak to kids and kids speak to adults. Teens also need meaningful connections to adults—even one person can make all the difference. We need to set up programs where adults and kids come together around more than academics.
Tell me about a person you work with who is making a difference for kids.
There is a superintendent in Rome, New York, who was overwhelmed by the number of suspensions and expulsions. So he went back through the records of all these kids to learn what had gone wrong and discovered that many of them had identifiable mental health problems in third grade that had not been attended to. So he decided to make mental health services a community-wide priority. He went to the sheriff and the mayor and the head of mental health services and got them all to support his initiative.
A lot of these changes are systemic, and they take time. Our job is to help good programs be successful and to sustain those successes beyond the life of the grant.
Originally published on May 1, 2008