It's Time to Put Our Money Where Our Mouths Should Be
1.2 million students drop out of U.S. schools every year. That's roughly 7,000 every day, or 1 every 26 seconds, according to data compiled by folks at ChildTrends.org and DoSomething.org. And this is with the dropout rate falling 3% from 1990 to 2010. or 12.1% to 7.4%.
If it's not ok to let even one child drop out of school, no matter the reason, how did it get to be ok for more than a million students a year to do so?
Early identification and intervention by schools is, has been, and will remain the best solution for our dropout problem. But, having just completed 3 decades of service in both public and private settings, grades K-12, as both a teacher and an administrator, I can say without a doubt, we have not done near enough.
The Warning Signs
The warning signs have always been there that tell us when children are starting to fall off the path of success. Problems with attendance and misbehavior stand right before our very deer-in-the-headlights eyes. We even see early on the first manifestations of depression, anxiety, attention deficits, autism disorders, and psychoses, not to mention child abuse, and drug and alcohol and tobacco use and abuse. We already know that these contribute to not only dropping out of school, but also self-mutilation, suicide, and criminal activity leading to both juvenile and adult incarceration.
Universal screening for mental and emotional health problems for all children as early as pre-school should be just as commonplace and rigorous as the effort already put into identifying and treating our children's physical health problems, contend organizations including Mental Health America, American Academy of Pediatrics. and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Early identification, accurate diagnoses, and effective and ongoing treatment must become the norm for all kids who present any sign of being at-risk for psychological imparement...when they first appear.
And there's the rub. Even when early warning signs clearly manifest, necessary resources are either not available, not available for all, or not available immediately. Most childhood psychological organizations admit that mental health problems affect roughly 1-in-5 young people at any given time. And yet more than 60% of all such children do not receive treatment...regardless of the reason.
Real Solution Long Overdue
The New Freedom Commission on Mental Health has long been calling for a universal early-detection system for all children (since 2002) that includes routine and comprehensive testing and screening in schools.
We already know that millions and millions of young children live with or experience significant trauma related to mental and health disorders. If not dealt with early and effectively, the problems only compound as children get older. Roughly 6.8% of the student population have attention problems. 3.5% have behavioral or conduct problems. 3.1% suffer from anxiety. 2.1% suffer from depression. 5.5% are already using drugs or alcohol. 2.8% are already smoking. And 2.7% have eating disorders.
It is in these early years, if you are looking closely, that the warning signs of psychotic illness begin to appear. Approximately 100,000 children each year experience their first psychotic episode. Do we really need the U.S. Center for Disease Control Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration to tell us we have a problem? It's right in front of us...year after year.
The federal government, through the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, has kicked off into the state's end zone a football of opportunity, so to speak, but so much politicization and financial game playing have left way too many kids untreated as they struggle their way through our schools. Schools may well have caught the kickoff, but what they have ultimately done is taken a knee in the end zone for a freebie placement on the 20-yard line. And that's really all the further they have progressed. Schools have been at 4th-down and 10-yards to go for their first-down seemingly forever.
I believe it is too much for schools themselves to handle child mental disorder identification, diagnosis, and intervention. At least, they can help get the ball rolling when key factors appear and refer such children out to contracted mental health agencies, and at best, they can also be responsible participants in implementing in the classrooms strategic improvement treatment plans.
Where Our Mouths Should Be
It is no longer enough to call on the ghosts of referendums of the past, as in the Social Security Act of 1935, to solve this growing problem for our children. We must instead start to put capes on the backs of the superheroes in the field of mental and emotional health to take the lead. Whole cadres of just such professionals are ready to fly.
And we have to finally decide once and for all where our money most needs to be spent...on the front end of the debacle when our kids are in schools, or at the back end of the calamity when our kids have grown up and reside in our jails, prisons and mental institutions.
It's time we put-put our money where our mouths should be.