Viewpoints: Teacher credentialing should include mental health training

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2013 - 6:24 am

Our state's educators are on the front lines of a national epidemic: One in five young people experiences significant emotional distress each year, according to a UC San Francisco study. Unrecognized mental health issues can affect not only the learning of the child experiencing challenges but the whole classroom. Behavioral problems, bullying and drops in educational achievement can all result from untreated mental health issues, and the stigma and shame students feel as a result.

More than just responsible for managing classroom problems, our education system is uniquely poised to significantly transform student mental health to help kids stay safe and healthy while they learn skills they need throughout their lives.

The Student Mental Health Policy Workgroup is a diverse, all-volunteer group of teachers, parents, school counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, administrators and individuals living with a mental health condition. The workgroup has reviewed the current mental health needs of California students and our existing student mental health practices.

The workgroup, convened by the California state superintendent's office, is urging as its first recommendation that administrators and teachers receive more training in the area of student mental health. This is absolutely critical to give California's educators the effective knowledge they need to assist students and their families in getting the appropriate services necessary for students to achieve in school and become working adults who live a full life. California educators work with multicultural and diverse populations and must receive current knowledge on how to strengthen and improve student mental wellness.

In surveys and research, teachers cite disruptive behavior and their lack of training in mental health issues as major barriers to instruction. This recommendation will equip educators to recognize key signs of mental health conditions and to understand programs and services that are available. We must empower educators, especially new educators, with more knowledge and training to help reduce the stigma of mental illness and to help students with mental health problems better succeed in their classrooms.

Research has shown that early detection and treatment of mental illness improves school attendance, behavior and ultimately academic achievement. This is especially critical among disadvantaged students and in schools with the greatest need.

California voters sparked a wide-scale transformation of our state's mental health delivery system in 2004 when they approved the Mental Health Services Act – Proposition 63. With this funding framework we can shift California to a prevention-oriented system that saves lives and dollars over the long term, a strategy that will be most effective if we begin identifying and meeting the mental health needs of our youth.

The workgroup recommendation begins with California credentialing programs. Responsible for educating more than 6 million California children, school administrators and teachers are in a position to change mental health for the better on an unprecedented scale.

Scientific studies have shown that first symptoms of a serious mental illness appear two to four years before an illness becomes serious; more than half of mental health issues begin by age 14; the majority of people experiencing the early stage of mental illness recover completely with services and treatment; and children who receive mental health support are more likely to be successful in school.

With training as part of credentialing, our schools can make a significant impact in the number of students whose depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress or other mental health issues impede learning and lifetime attainment. We have a unique opportunity right now, as the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing prepares its once-a-decade review of proposed reforms to teacher training requirements.

In California, we have an important opportunity that could help prevent tragedies by incorporating mental health education in all California educator-credentialing requirements.

Wayne Clark is board president of the California Mental Health Services Authority.

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