Mental health study a positive step

— Winston-Salem Journal

Posted

A bill that would allow state officials to study performing mental health screenings on public school students has begun making its way through state legislative committees, the Journal’s Richard Craver reported earlier this week. This legislation is a worthwhile step in tackling the problem of school shootings as well as other problems that can arise among our children. It should work well in conjunction with other efforts, such as increased school security and gun-law reform.

The bill would instruct the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a study to determine the best criteria under which a screening “would identify school children ... at risk of harming themselves or others.” It would help DHHS determine, in consultation with other agencies, at what age such screenings should first be conducted and when follow-up examinations should occur. It also would study “how to keep the screening information confidential; whether to allow parents to opt out of the screenings; and whether to provide legal immunity to health care and mental health professionals conducting the screenings,” the Journal reported.

The first screening would likely involve all students, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, state Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, as do eye and hearing examinations.

“We have nothing that determines if a child has a mental health concern ... to the point they could be contemplating harming themselves or others,” Torbett said. “This bill would bring smart people together for determining the appropriate criteria.”

That’s what we need.

Such a study could also identify factors that lead to bullying or suicidal tendencies. Our children are facing pressures from all sides — increased testing, peer pressure and economic difficulties. They’re not receiving the best resources we could provide. It’s about time they received a helping hand.

The horrific school shootings that have proliferated in recent years “were the catalyst for the formation of the committee to study ways to improve security and student safety in our public schools,” the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth, told the Journal. But she noted that other mental health problems exist in our schools, too.

“When school counselors visit my office in Raleigh, they tell me that the vast majority of their time is spent dealing with students who have emotional and mental issues. An increasing number of students have suicidal thoughts,” she told the Journal. “When we were studying the impact of Common Core a few years back, many parents complained about emotional stress in very young children, so issues can obviously arise at an early age.”

Fifty percent of mental illness issues begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 25, Andy Hagler, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Forsyth County, told the Journal.

As necessary as such a study is, mental health screenings must be conducted carefully and responsibly. They cannot be allowed to become tools for persecuting students who fail to conform or whose sensibilities may be out of the norm. The determinations of risk must come from accredited mental health care professionals.

And while it’s encouraging to see our legislators finally take solid measures to deal with school shootings, rather than offer more “thoughts and prayers,” this is only one step. More are needed.

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