We are currently at a crucial time with regard to supporting children. The systems designed to help them are at their breaking point. As a social worker, I am well aware of the mental health crisis we face. Medical and public health systems, and the healthcare providers who work in them, are struggling to meet the current need.
As an educator, I can share that all of these systems are impacting schools, and nowhere is the crisis reaching such a crescendo as in education. To add anxiety and tension about learning loss, an unprecedented staff shortage, and the fact that federal special education laws haven’t changed, and you’re in for a crisis of epic proportions.
Only the education system is truly obligated, by law and mandates, to support the whole child. Our teachers are called upon not only to ensure academic progress, but also to ensure the safety, health, emotional and cognitive well-being of all students. We urgently need paradigm shifts in our systems that care for children if we hope to support our schools, support our children and, by proxy, their educators, families and communities.
Whole school, whole community, whole child
The whole child mandate of the education system was highlighted for us when our daughter had an acute onset of mental health symptoms in second grade and her brother followed with a slower decline but similar symptoms. They presented with panic attacks, ocdmood swings, sensory issues, and intense separation anxiety.
We initially turned to the system I knew best: mental health care. We went from professional to professional, from medication to medication, from diagnosis to diagnosis with no real solution or cure. Then we had to ask our local school system to change how they supported them. Both children were academically competent, but their mental health symptoms prevented them from making effective progress. Our daughter was in third grade and our son in second, when each qualified for an Individual Education Plan (IEP). They were placed in therapeutic day schools outside our community, costing our school district nearly $100,000 a year in tuition and transportation.
This level of support for our children has been accessible because of decades of federal and state legislation, as well as significant case law, that has expanded the breadth and depth of what public schools are required to provide to students. For our children, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensured that they would have access to Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to access the curriculum and make effective progress. While other systems tried to help them progress, only the education system was empowered to step in and support them.
Schools in crisis
As we move beyond the pandemic, our schools struggle to be what these laws, mandates, and case law have essentially made them to be: de facto medical, mental health, and community care centers. Mental health needs are soaring: 70 percent of public schools report an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services in school since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and three-quarters of schools also reported an increase in staff are concerned their students are showing symptoms such as depressionfear and trauma. Furthermore, we are seeing a rise in chronic absenteeism following the pandemic, with most school districts across the country reporting significant increases, especially among the lower-income and marginalized populations.
This level of need is complicated by the fact that many districts are in an unprecedented personnel crisis, with some districts short of dozens of critical positions. Since no federal special education laws have changed during the pandemic, schools remain obligated to the same services and compliance measures as before the pandemic. Schools have been asked to pivot, shift and accommodate the ever-changing, ever-growing level of needs of their students during this time.
Our children’s school system benefited from a radically different way of viewing and treating their mental illness. While both children remained in therapeutic day schools for most of their K-12 years, something miraculous happened in our son’s fifth grade. At that point his symptoms worsened and we thought we might lose him suicidewhen we heard about a disease we had never heard of: PANDAS/PANS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Strep/Pediatric acute onset neuropsychiatric syndrome). This disease has roots in the body, with viruses and infections (i.e. strep, flu, COVID) causing a host of neuropsychiatric symptoms in the brain. As a social worker, I was skeptical. I was taught to always rule out medical causes of mental illness and had never heard of this condition. Out of desperation, we had our son screened.
When he was diagnosed with PANS/PANDAS, we also had our daughter screened. She was also diagnosed. With treatment, both children began to heal in ways we never expected. In ways I never thought possible as a social worker. Their fear diminished, their to trust grew, and they advocated leaving their small therapeutic schools and returning to their high school environment. With proper diagnosis and treatment, they were both able to move back into a less restrictive environment and find true healing.
Our local school district funded the education of both of our children. I calculated the cost at just under a million dollars to educate both children. The emotional toll on our children and family has been immeasurable. If mental health professionals and medical professionals had known that strep throat and viruses can cause psychological symptoms, and had taken a simple strep test when our daughter was 7 and our son was 5, our children might have been caught, treated, and able to survive much sooner. their community schools.
Shifting the paradigm
Recognizing the link between viruses, infections and mental health is just one paradigm shift that would be critical to helping our schools. We know from current research and science that 20 to 40 percent of COVID is associated with neuropsychiatric symptoms, including anxiety and depression. Making a differential diagnosis every time and ruling out medical causes of mental health is part of our mental health mandate and will help our schools help children heal and not be relegated to a lifetime of symptoms management. Our children are an example; we don’t know how many others have been missed.
What other ways can we change our practice – create new ways of thinking and working together to help children and schools? We need to think differently, be open to new ideas and work together to bring about change. If we stay at the forefront of the belief that helping the whole child is best practice, together we can have courageous conversations to create paradigm shifts that can create lasting, meaningful change in schools and all systems that support them. support.