By Guest Columnist DANA RICKMAN, director for policy and research at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education
Throughout all of 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission conducted a “top to bottom review of public education.” The goal of this effort is to make education “more accessible and effective in preparing our state’s students for the rigors of college and the workforce.”
Recommendations around increased access to early learning, the recruitment and retention of high-quality educators, and expanded school-choice options for students are expected to dominate the 2017 legislative session as this reform agenda is rolled out.
This is combined with an historic opportunity for Georgia to set its own educational agenda and determine the best way to support schools and districts with the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA substantially reduces federal control over K-12 education for the first time in three decades and returns a majority of decision-making authority back to the states and local districts.
Due to these changes and opportunities, Georgia is currently investigating new and innovative ways to improve student outcomes and strengthen our workforce pipeline. Free of many former federal guidelines, the state now has a greater responsibility for building a world-class education system.
As Georgia embarks on these exciting new education initiatives, one aspect of student success largely overlooked is the intersection of school and overall child well-being, specifically the mental health of the student.
Students with unmet mental health needs experience significant barriers to academic, career, and social/emotional development. The impact of a mental health disorder on individual students and the workforce development pipeline is significant:
- One in 5 children ages 13 years to 18 years of age has, or will have, a serious mental illness;
- 50 percent of students age 14 and older with a mental illness drop out of high school;
- 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness;
- Children with behavioral health issues miss double the amount of school as their peers;
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15 years to 24 years of age;
- 90 percent of those young adults who die by suicide had an underlying mental illness.
Behavioral and mental health issues in children arise from a variety of factors, including childhood trauma, adverse features of housing and neighborhoods, food and housing insecurity, and poverty.
A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the overall well being of Georgia’s kids is getting worse. In fact, over the past two years, Georgia has dropped two spots in our national child well being ranking to 42nd for trends including education, health, and economic well-being.
The high percentage of Georgia students living in poverty is the main driver of these outcomes. As our poverty level increases, more children are experiencing these particular causes of mental health issues.
These drivers have a two-fold impact on Georgia’s educational system.
First, as previously mentioned, students with a mental health disorder are less likely to be successful in school. The statistics show that it is not just what happens inside the schoolhouse that impacts Georgia’s ability to make sure every student succeeds. Nearly 80 percent of children who need behavioral mental health services do not receive them, but these unaddressed issues directly impact schools’ graduation rates and their ability to successfully educate their students.
Second, of school-aged children who do receive mental health services, 70 to 80 percent receive them at school. A variety of state agencies administer these services to children, including the Department of Behavioral Heath and Development Disabilities, Department of Human Services, and the Department of Juvenile Justice.
However, schools are often the first, and sometimes only, place where mental health crisis and mental health needs are recognized and addressed. This creates a tremendous burden on local school systems that are often ill equipped to deal with the level of mental health needs that arise. To meet the level of demand, Georgia school systems would need one school psychologist for every 1,000 students. Currently, there is one for every 2,475 students. Georgia would also need more than 2,500 school nurses. Currently, there are approximately 1,500 statewide.
The workforce shortage to address this issue falls well outside the public school system.
In Georgia, 76 of 159 counties do not have a licensed psychologist, and 52 of 159 counties do not have a licensed social worker on staff. Therefore, assuming local school systems have the capacity to properly identify students with mental health and behavioral challenges, there is often nowhere to refer the child for treatment.
Throughout 2015, the House Study Committee on Children’s Mental Health, led by state Rep. Katie Dempsey (R-Rome), held a series of meetings to:
- Examine early intervention and prevention services;
- Identify available resources for children with mental health issues;
- Evaluate possible improvements in the delivery of services.
Through their meetings, the committee found significant workforce shortages in the areas of child psychiatry and psychology, as well as considerable fragmentation between the state agencies that oversee a vast array of programs. While they did recognize several programs where multiple agencies collaborated, there was no coordinated child mental health system through which practitioners and schools could coordinate care.
In their findings, the study committee made 16 different recommendations. But their primary recommendation was the development of a Children’s Mental Health State Strategic Plan that would, “provide comprehensive, accessible and coordinated mental health prevention, early and timely interventions, and appropriate treatment service for children.” The report also recommended Georgia develop a state mental health workforce plan that would allow for the recruitment and retention of mental health workers.
While coordinating a new state plan appears to be a monumental challenge, Georgia has a history of and experience with tackling complex systems and implementing drastic change. In 2011, the governor appointed the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Bringing together a diverse set of stakeholders, the reform commission created and implemented significant reforms to the adult and juvenile justice systems that have led to Georgia being a national leader in this work.
At a recent Critical Issues Forum hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a call was made for another commission to focus on mental health in the same manner. (Click here to watch “Critical Issues Forum: The Wellness Impact on Education.)
As the state investigates new and innovative ways to improve teaching and learning of our students, it must also combine those goals with goals of ensuring all children are able to show up at school ready to learn. Our workforce development plans for Georgia’s economic growth depend on every student succeeding and contributing to the economy. Often driven by issues of poverty and trauma, too many of our students are falling through the cracks when suffering behavioral disorders that could be prevented and/ or treated before they become a failed statistic.