Guest Column

The Road Less Traveled Probably Isn’t Paved

by Sarah D. Jerome

It doesn’t hurt to take a hard look at yourself from time to time, and this should help get you started.

During a visit to the mental asylum, a visitor asked the medical director what criteria defined whether a patient should be institutionalized. “Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient and ask him or her to empty the bathtub.”

“Oh, I understand,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it’s bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”

“No,” said the director. “A normal person would pull the plug.”

Do you want a room with or without a view?

A Health Crisis
Jokes abound about our emotional and mental well-being. And while we often enjoy the intended humor, we may forget the growing crisis in our schools related to the emotional health and emotional intelligence of students.

Neuropsychiatric disorders account for the world’s most frequently named disabilities, most deaths attributed, most frequent contributor to substance abuse and most costly contributor to loss of productivity at work. Among school-age children, the Centers for Disease Control states that one in five high school students seriously contemplates suicide every year. The scholarly journal Archives of General Psychiatry states that 50 percent of emotional and mental illnesses start by age 14.

Unfortunately, among school-age children 75 percent of those needing mental health services do not receive them, according to researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Most of the mental health care children do receive comes through their schools. School programs are well suited to help children access mental health services and to deal with the stigma associated with such help.

Schools are enormously effective at dealing with a range of emotional problems. They include the normal developmental stages that all children experience. Schools also are effective at dealing with situational issues that impact children, such as destructive and disruptive hurricanes. School personnel, in partnership with mental health professionals, can be effective in providing a supportive, healing environment and in administering proper treatment.

Notably, the school is the No. 1 site for providing mental health services to children who need them. The key is diagnosis. As educational leaders, do we facilitate the process that leads to accurate diagnosis? How can we do a better job?

Clearly, for some children, a secure learning environment just isn’t enough. There are some children with “bad wiring.” For example, children with depressive disorders, anorexia, severe attention deficit disorder and autism will require much more than can be provided in school. Health care services are needed to provide the proper diagnosis.

Promising Advances
One of the most important first steps is to tackle the stigma and denial associated with emotional and mental illnesses and addictions. Bring the discussion of these important issues to the PTA meetings, faculty meetings, school board meetings and university settings. Schools of education must attend to these issues in their teacher and administrator preparation courses. Let’s begin talking about the facts and how our school community can embrace the issues in the same way we tackle reading and mathematics learning deficits. We must all become better informed.

Another important step is to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary advances and new understanding of the causes and treatments of mental illness through the studies of brain functioning, genetics and the relationships between physical and mental illness and addiction. In fact, the significant progress in treatments has led to better outcomes for many mental illnesses than for such chronic physical conditions as coronary artery disease and diabetes, yet only 31 percent received adequate treatment for emotional/mental illness, according to Rogers Memorial Hospital, a nonprofit, mental health treatment facility in Wisconsin.

A third step in developing children who are emotionally healthy and emotionally intelligent is to adopt a strategic curriculum that ensures specific characteristics are addressed in systematic, programmatic ways. In addition to a K-12 developmental guidance curriculum, emotionally intelligent behaviors must be overtly taught, modeled and practiced in our schools. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman specified these qualities: self-awareness, emotional balance, self-motivation, recognizing emotions in others and relationships.

We can make these qualities part of instructional programs. The National Center for Clinical Infant Programs suggests key ingredients for emotional health that leads a student to be a successful learner: confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness and capacity to communicate and ability to cooperate. These skills will help all students and especially those with adjustment disorders, depression and aggression.

Addressing emotional intelligence equips students with more effective means of dealing with conflict and feelings and improves their coping skills and academic skills by strengthening problem-solving skills. By increasing their insights into themselves and into the emotions of others, these children gain steps toward a successful life.

Finally, schools must form partnerships with medical schools, behavioral health hospitals and agencies and insurance providers to provide a seamless system of services to students and their families and to school staff and their families. We are serving the same population and yet we rarely communicate. We must form alliances and links that will serve our common constituencies more effectively.

A Compelling Need
This truly is a road less traveled. And we educational leaders are the ones who will pave this road.
Given the serious and pervasive emotional and mental health issues, we must address this with the same vigor and energy that we have addressed the challenges of sex education, literacy, driver education, special education and No Child Left Behind. Learning is inextricably interconnected to emotional and mental health. Children will not learn optimally without being raised in an emotionally balanced environment.

As educators, we must get past the unfair remarks about how disturbed or violent our youth have become and take positive action to instill students with the life skills and coping mechanisms that foster healthy and successful students. Even for those dealing with severe mental illness, these skills will be of great use and often the first that a therapist will try to strengthen. And as professionals, we must be the first to model these behaviors in all our interactions.

Goleman, in his book, says, “Emotional intelligence is a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.” Our assertive action to bring well-balanced, intelligent children to graduate into their role as healthy citizens of the world is one of the most compelling tasks we will face as educators in the 21st century. We have an opportunity to answer a compelling need. We can begin the conversation. Let’s do it together — all over this nation. What a major quality of life difference this act can have on the lives of millions of children.

Sarah Jerome, AASA president-elect, is superintendent of the Arlington Heights School District 25, 1200 S. Dunton Ave., Arlington Heights, IL 60005. E-mail: jerome@ahsd25.k12.il.us