Alex Azar: Put mental health services in schools

August 10, 2018

U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services secretary Alex Azar tours Adams-Friendship Middle School in Adams.

ADAMS — All American children deserve a safe place to learn, and all American parents deserve to know that their children spend each day in a safe, caring environment.

Tragically, mass shootings and other threats in our schools in recent years have left many parents worrying that is not the case. Too often, schools have not had the resources or the know-how to prevent these tragedies by building a positive climate within their walls.

But solutions are at hand. As part of President Donald Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and I heard about some tangible solutions on a recent visit to Adams-Friendship Middle School in Adams.

Wisconsin has taken the lead on integrating mental health services into its schools, ensuring students have access to the services they need for healthy social and emotional development. On our visit, we were joined by Wisconsin’s first lady, Tonette Walker, who has played a key role in the state’s efforts, including a statewide program known as the Wisconsin School Mental Health Framework.

The results of Adams-Friendship’s efforts were truly impressive. One way the federal government supports mental health programs is through providing best practices, and we saw firsthand how some best practices have been implemented in Adams. Services are provided right on the school premises, integrating them into an environment where children feel safe. The services are designed to complement the school’s education mission, rather than get in the way, and the school’s leadership made it clear how actively involved they are in mental health efforts.

Healthy school environments are about more than just services. Adams-Friendship also has implemented a program to build a positive atmosphere within the school, where teachers and other staffers pay close attention to children’s emotional needs, helping them feel safe, secure and cared for.

In addition to hearing from teachers, administrators, mental health professionals and law enforcement, we listened to students share how having mental health services right on campus had changed life at school. Other students shared how much healthier and more positive they felt the environment is at Adams-Friendship than at other schools they’d attended. We also heard from parents, who should always have a say in programming for their children.

The Trump Administration is interested in mental health services not just to improve school safety, but also because mental health generally is a focus for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Our Wisconsin visit included HHS’ Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Elinore McCance-Katz, a psychiatrist who is leading our mental health efforts. Across the administration, we are especially focused on Americans with the most severe mental health challenges, known in children as “serious emotional disturbance.”

Over 7 million American children suffer from serious emotional disturbance, which can impede key life activities like being able to learn in school. We need to be identifying signs of these conditions not only to help these children, but also because early identification and treatment can make these conditions much less severe down the road. Given the amount of time children spend in school, as many teachers and school personnel as possible should be trained in identifying warning signs and symptoms.

We at HHS want to help extend efforts like Wisconsin’s to more schools and more communities. In addition to grants that support school mental health programs, HHS runs regional centers to provide mental health technical assistance and training for state and local governments and community-based clinicians. At a recent meeting of the school safety commission in Washington, we announced these centers will now include additional resources focused on children’s mental health.

Providing sophisticated, comprehensive services like those we heard about in Wisconsin, especially in rural communities such as Adams, may seem like an ambitious goal. But we know it’s possible because we saw it firsthand, and we heard how positive the results have been.

The Trump Administration looks forward to supporting state, local and community leaders in learning from successes and implementing ambitious visions like we saw in Wisconsin. Together, we can build the kind of safe, healthy environments that all of our children deserve.

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