Mentally Healthy Schools

By Jay D. Tarnow, M.D.


I recently participated in a workshop on the prevention of school violence, and I thought you would be interested in the discussion. The workshop, “No Place for Hate – Preventing    Violence in School,” was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. My presentation was entitled “Creating Mentally Healthy Schools,” where I discussed the stigma of mental illness, the epidemic of violence, and where the two worlds tend to collide in our schools.


After the tragedy in Newtown, people were rushing to diagnose Adam Lanza’s mental illness. Was he depressed? Autistic? Anxious? The truth is that we don’t really know, and we never will. But it seemed a comforting diversion to identify Lanza as mentally ill. If he’s mentally ill, then he’s not normal. And if we just identify all the other kids who aren’t normal, we can keep this from ever happening again. But we were barking up the wrong tree. The truth is that only 4% of all violent crime is committed by people with a psychiatric condition. But if we stigmatize  the mentally ill as dangerous, then we make it much less likely that the sad or  anxious child will ask for help.


The problem that we all face is how to identify the students who present a threat to the community. Parents, teachers, and educators all want to know how to predict violence before it occurs, and there are different theories on how to identify people who are apt to act out. But research has consistently shown that these measures are only slightly better at correctly identifying a violent student than they are at mislabeling a nonviolent student. School shooters differ in age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, relationship status, and  religious beliefs. The only  shared characteristic that we  can point  to is a general  unhappiness. This unhappiness is often due to external factors in the home (parental discord, abuse, neglect), or at school (social rejection, bullying, poor performance) or due to internal factors such as emotional illness or learning differences.


National prevalence estimates indicate that 20% of children have a mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder that causes at least some level of functional impairment. About 5% of children have a serious emotional disturbance that results in significant functional impairments that affect both school and home activities. And roughly 50% of lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, making these illnesses chronic disorders of the young. We can no longer ignore these problems until something happens.


My belief is that our focus should be on mental wellness, rather than mental illness. By emphasizing positive mental health practices within the classroom, we can more easily remove the fear and the mystery surrounding mental health. Train   teachers, students, and administrators to recognize signs of sadness, worry, and frustration in themselves and others, and make this practice part of the curriculum. I have developed a low-cost methodology to prevent these problems from getting worse. This involves training school staff about these issues and prevention methodologies. Please contact me if this would be an interest to your school and parents.


The stabbings at Lone Star College last April and more recently the stabbings at Spring High School bring this issue home. The high school stabbings were reportedly secondary to gang problems. This underscores the complexity of the issues. Our schools, both public and private, rich or poor, need help.

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