Earles/My Turn: Disturbing lack of response

Whenever a student suicide associated with bullying or a school shooting occurs, there is much about mental illness and the mentally ill in the media. The need for greater school safety and more mental health services is usually expressed. Rarely is there discussion about what is not happening that should be happening.

As a clinical social worker with national exposure as a trainer, speaker and consultant in child and adolescent mental health, I know all too well the challenges faced by those students beset with mental health conditions and by clinical and educational personnel who sincerely want to help them. The over-arching issue to that of personnel and services is the training required to establish competencies to knowledgeably interact with and treat such youth. The deplorable lack of education and training is abominable, as the following examples make clear.

Without appropriate and adequate academic training and professional development it can take a clinician or educator years to acquire the knowledge necessary to help those in need. While personnel scramble to keep up-to-date, they often are not due to a lack of professional development opportunities. Training that does exist, tends to focus on behavioral characteristics and concomitant management, instituted by educators who struggle to maintain some semblance of order in their classrooms. Even when informed, competent and licensed presenters are available, training opportunities are not offered.

For example, once Massachusetts passed bullying legislation, untold school district resources were expended on all things anti-bullying, neglecting the inherent mental health issues of everyone involved. While youth mental health concerns (e.g. suicide) were shunted aside, anti-bullying efforts proved largely ineffective.

Over the past several years, Greenfield Community College has summarily dismissed my proposals to offer course work or professional development workshops in child and adolescent mental health. I’ve approached department heads, continuing education and even the college’s president. I got nowhere.

The Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton offers various workshops for county educators. During the past two to three Summer Academies, more than 150 offerings were listed in their catalogs — NONE addressed child and adolescent mental health.

Last year’s Western Massachusetts Special Education Conference listed 46 workshops — NONE addressed child and adolescent mental health.

My inquiry about this oversight was met with silence. Special Education directors could request such workshops. Obviously they do not.

Franklin County has an early childhood mental health roundtable with over 100 email registrants. Their mission statement centers on advocating for services. While such a mission is admirable, they too scoff at the idea of providing crucial training. Yet, they use phrases like, “Promote healthy social and emotional development” and “Improve the provision of early identification and intervention services ...” How do those intentions get accomplished without appropriate and adequate education and training? I approached them with an offer to present a (free) workshop. The offer was declined.

The Recorder has been remiss in publicizing child and adolescent mental health programs I produced on GCTV as well as a recent grant sponsored program on Tourette Syndrome. (Neither the Greenfield School Department nor the Gill-Montague District, despite personal requests, offered any support, either.)

When it comes to student mental health, school districts, as a rule, do not provide professional development in child and adolescent mental health. Consider this: when faced with a mandate to produce an anti-bullying policy, a requirement of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and despite the impetus for such a policy directive brought about by the suicides of two western Massachusetts students, NO KNOWN SCHOOL DISTRICT included anything in their bullying policy report on suicide prevention.

How can suicide, especially youth suicide, the most critical of mental health concerns, be ignored?

In essence, efforts that could help are not being expended. Those affected the most by the lack of such actions, children and adolescents, are the most vulnerable. These sometimes rude, obnoxious and disruptive kids are being penalized for being victimized by their own bodies, minds and brains. Ironically, the penalties inflicted upon them often come from well-intended, sincere and caring individuals who are uninformed, misinformed and frustrated as they struggle to help these kids.

It’s time for parents, community entities and interested others to insist that educational institutions, educational collaboratives, professional development and conference coordinators and seminar companies, develop and offer academic course work, continuing education opportunities and professional development offerings in child and adolescent mental health. Those, such as mentioned here, who could and should provide such services need to eliminate any resistance to making those offerings a reality.

Isn’t it about time we help these kids and their families by helping those who are trying to help them?

Garry L. Earles is a licensed independent clinical social worker who lives in Franklin County.

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