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Not just a problem for adults: mental health issues in students

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While it may be easy to view slipping grades, missing school and acting out as hallmarks of a juvenile delinquent, these may be signs of a mental health issue.

Andrea Summers-Cotton, social services specialist at Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), said children experiencing a mental health issue may become withdrawn from their peers, appear anxious or suddenly behave aggressively. 

“Sometimes, these things are a normal part of adolescence,” Summers-Cotton said. “So, teachers and staff need to be looking for frequency. If a kiddo is really struggling, this is going to go on for a couple of weeks.”

Thanks to social workers available at all IPS schools, teachers and staff are trained to look for these traits in children. While e-learning has changed how educators interact with their students, Summers-Cotton said IPS took a proactive approach to ensure children can still get the help they need. 

Using Telehealth, a virtual health resource, IPS students are able to contact trained counselors if they’re feeling overwhelmed or struggling with symptoms of a mental health issue. Carrie Black, communications manager for IPS, said parents are able to connect with school officials on a weekly basis. One week is a meeting focused on warning signs. 

Beyond the anxiety and the wave of emotions that can come from a mental health crisis, children struggling with their mental health will most likely have trouble focusing — and succeeding — in school. 

“It’s about survival,” Summers-Cotton said of living with a mental illness. “It’s moment by moment, day by day. It’s difficult as a kid when you don’t want to appear different from peers, and that takes a lot of energy to try and fit in and to manage those feelings. There’s little energy left to put toward school or anything else.”

For Black students, the need for mental health intervention can be a matter of life and death. According to the 2017 Youth Risks Behaviors survey, suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15-24, and Black youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than white youth. 

Despite this disparity in suicide and suicide attempts, oftentimes, Black students are punished for displaying signs of mental health issues, such as aggression and disengagement, in the classroom. A study conducted by the University of California, Berkley, found Black students are four times as likely to be suspended than white students for the same infractions. This can be a result of racial bias, and, Summers-Cotton said, a lack of understanding from teachers. 

“Kids with behavioral and emotional disorders sometimes act out, and instead of looking at the root of the problem, people react to the symptom,” Summers-Cotton said. “If a kiddo is mad and aggressive out of the blue, they get put out of class instead of a teacher saying, ‘Hey, that’s different.’”

Summers-Cotton said schools should work with students and families to be aware of cultural biases and differences.

Regardless of culture or ethnicity, parents can help their children handle their emotions and mental health by leading by example. 

Kelsey Steuer, Indiana area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in a previous interview with the Recorder said adults who speak with their children about mental health issues can help children, particularly African American boys, share their struggles and seek treatment. 

“We’re working to debunk the myth that showing emotions or needing help is showing weakness,” Steuer said. “If African American boys have figures in their lives that they look up to who are open about their mental health, it makes it easier for them to do the same.” 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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