OPED: Pa. must make students' mental health a priority

Eugene DePasquale
Pennsylvania Auditor General
In this file photo, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale outlines the findings of an audit of the York City School District, Thursday, April 20, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

When a student feels sick during the school day, they visit the school nurse. But if their problem is emotional or psychological in nature, where can they turn for help?

That’s the dilemma some Pennsylvania students face when they are bullied by classmates. Tragically, bullying reportedly played in a role in student suicides in York, Blair, and Columbia counties this year.

These heartbreaking cases of young lives cut short should be a wake-up call to parents, policy makers and school administrators.

Although bullying is occasionally mentioned as a factor in school shootings, the vast majority of bullied students never pick up a gun. Instead, they often suffer in silence and internalize the emotional trauma of their experiences. Their grades may suffer and they may even drop out of school. In adulthood, the emotional scars they carry can resurface as post-traumatic stress disorder, family dysfunction, violence and addiction.

We, as a society, all pay the enormous costs of these problems that can span generations.

Shortly after last February’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Gov. Tom Wolf and I launched our School Safety Task Force. Our most important goal was to listen to those on the front lines of school violence; student voices that need to be heard and amplified.

Over the course of our six task force meetings, I met dozens of students from diverse backgrounds. Their top concern was nearly always the same: a need for better access to mental health services.

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As our task force report explained, students are struggling with pressure and anxiety, and too often find themselves ill-equipped to handle the resulting stress. They need classes dedicated to social and emotional learning. They need qualified mental health professionals in their schools.

Pennsylvania has adopted laws to strengthen ways in which schools can act to prevent bullying. But new laws, by themselves, cannot do the entire job.  

As a parent, I know that it’s impossible to know everything that is going on inside a child’s mind.

Teenagers, in particular, can be reluctant to talk to their parents. They want to demonstrate that they’re mature enough to handle problems on their own — even if they’re not.

All parents, I hope, make an effort to talk to their kids about the challenges they face and pay close attention to any signs of distress. Monitor their social media use and screen time. Keep tabs on their friends. Most importantly, make certain they know you are available to listen to them, any time of day or night.

Even after doing all of those things, it’s not always safe to assume that the kids will be all right.

I will continue to push to end the stigma placed on conversations about mental health and the need to enhance the mental health services available to our youth. Bringing these concerns out of the shadows and into the spotlight is the first step in building a safer learning environment for all students.

— Eugene DePasquale is Pennsylvania's auditor general.