By Heather Oster
With the school year getting underway, there is a looming fear for some parents about the safety of their children. Is the answer to safety at school a matter of stronger locks and more police? Do you really want an armed presence on campus with your child? Can we expect our police officers to respond effectively to situations involving individuals who have a mental health crisis? This has been the practice since the 1970s when the federal government turned over the treatment of people with mental illness to states and local communities. Now prisons deal with more individuals suffering from mental illness than mental health clinics.
There have been 15 school shootings, similar to the Sandy Hook incident, in recent months. One thing that is almost always reported following one of these horrific events is that there were signs something was wrong with the shooter. The shooter was angry. The shooter was isolating. The shooter was bullied. Hindsight is 20/20. But what if there was a way to see what was coming? What if the individuals who are trained to understand human behavior and see signs of possible danger were on the same campus with your child? This could very well be the answer to an increasingly disturbing trend.
The Mental Health in Schools Act, H.R. 628, has been introduced in Congress to help reduce school violence and send resources into local community schools to improve access to mental health care for students. This legislation reinvigorates the Public Health Service Act by providing competitive grants to schools so they can partner with an already established mental health agency and train teachers and family members to recognize the early signs of mental illness. In addition to training, mental health services will be offered on campus to students who are in need and wrap-around services can be established for those whose needs may be greater.
The safety of your son or daughter cannot be left in the hands of the criminal justice system. The police could not get to Sandy Hook, Columbine, or Virginia Tech in time to save those students. However, highly qualified teachers spend the majority of their day with your children. These teachers can be trained to recognize if a child is in crisis or if behaviors are becoming erratic. They can use appropriate interventions immediately or may seek help from the on-campus mental health professional. Prior to a crisis is the time for intervention. Not after a tragedy has occurred.
Early intervention has proven to reduce the negative effects of mental illness throughout an individual’s life. A reduction in negative effects means the individual may be able to develop into a fully functional adult. He or she may be able to establish a family and pursue the American dream. When individuals can do this, they pay taxes instead of collecting disability checks. The American taxpayer wins in both instances.
A proactive approach is available through H.R. 628. By taking this approach our children will benefit. They will understand what mental illness is and how it can be diverted into a maintenance issue instead of a crisis issue. Let us assist our children in understanding that mental illness is similar to hypertension or diabetes; with proper care, disease does not have to affect his or her ability to reach their dreams. H.R. 628 is the legislation that will help us take the first step.
Call (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected to your Representative. Explain that it is urgent to support H.R. 628 to improve school safety and the lives of the children in your community. Just one phone call is all it takes to save a life – and help make our neighborhood schools safer.
Heather Oster lives in Palm Desert, California and works in the mental health industry. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Social Work from The University of Southern California.