Although it may seem coincidental that May is Mental Health Month and also the time when New York voters are asked to approve school budgets for the coming academic year, the link between mental illness and school safety is becoming increasingly clear. Unfortunately, school administrators and boards have been slow to catch up, opting for big-ticket expenditures on hardening buildings against the extremely rare chance of an armed attacker and failing to also expand counseling, on-campus therapy, and other programs.
Nationally and locally, the numbers tell the story. There are almost 1,400 or more suicides reported every year in the United States among high school students and about 1,000 among those in college. This is a genuine crisis. The Centers for Disease Control rates suicide as the third leading cause of death among teens.
In 2008-9, the latest year for which good figures are available, the National Center for Education Statistics said there were 17 in-school homicides compared to 1,344 suicides of youth between the ages of 5 and 18. These totals are down slightly from the averages of the preceding 17 years for which data is available. East Hampton’s schools mirror the national trends. There were two student suicides in recent years and no murders.
Those who think about the issues surrounding students’ well-being are increasingly pointing to mental health care as key. They say that if schools and community organizations take on the too-high number of student suicides in the United States every year, they may at the same time prevent a significant portion of the homicides. In other words, if mental health problems are identified and dealt with early on, we may help stop the uncommon but occasionally horrendous assaults.
Given all this, the focus on bullet-proof doors and surveillance cameras appears misplaced or at least out of balance with the real risks. For an example, we need look no further than the East Hampton district, which put $1.43 million in unspecified security upgrades into its proposed 2014-15 spending plan while at the same time the high school principal’s meager $30,000 request for additional mental health staff was cut to an unacceptable $5,000.
Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. was able to have $150,000 set aside in the state budget for mental health services in the South Fork schools. But the money will be spread among a number of districts and, while better than nothing, it is far from enough. Much more time and money must be set aside to get at-risk students the care they need. Every dollar spent for building better walls should be matched by a dollar for making sure every young person has access to the help he or she needs.