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Youth Radio: Calling out students with mental illness won't make schools safer

Courtesy of Flickr user Conspirator

Mental health advocates want the link between violence and people who are mentally ill to disappear.

After the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed 20 children and six staff, lawmakers scrambled to respond to the public’s fear that schools aren’t safe enough. Some states and policymakers began proposing policy changes that addressed people who suffer from mental illness, because an investigation into the Lanza’s mental health history revealed that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and Sensory Integration Disorder (SID).

TheAtlantic reports:

“Soon after the shootings, it was reported that Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger's, and many wondered if that was the whole story. Asperger's, after all, is not typically linked to violent behavior, certainly not the level of violence that Lanza unleashed on Sandy Hook Elementary School, so many wondered if there was something else going on. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis — something must've tripped a wire in his brain and made him snap.”

But according to the American Psychiatric Institute, only four to five percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. 

Nevertheless,New York signed a lawin January of this year, requiring mental health practitioners to alert the authorities of any patients who appear to be potentially dangerous. And a commentary in Education Week says teachers should do the same thing with their students -- identifying any who appear potentially dangerous, in an effort to keep the school community safe.

However, young mental health advocates say this is a problematic strategy. Members ofYouth In Mind, a statewide mental health advocacy organization, sat down with Youth Radio reporter Chantell Williams to explain their perspective. They said being profiled or labelled mentally ill does not always lead to more support for students.

“I had a Language Arts teacher who was reading a lot of my poetry, and got very concerned,” said Susan Manzi, the President of Youth In Mind. Manzi said she wrote suicidal poetry in English class as a result of living with a sexually and physically abusive family.

“The school counselor ended up calling my mother all the time, and telling my mother all these issue that I was having... All of a sudden I was getting the repercussions of that information getting leaked to the school,” she said.

“In a ‘utopian’ world, yes, I would love to say that educators can be there, identifying with the right resources if people are at risk... I just don’t think we’re there yet,” said Manzi.

On the other hand, teachers can provide safety for students with mental illness. This was the case for Crystallee Crain, an adjunct professor at DeAnza College and the College of Alameda, and a member of Youth In Mind. “As a student who was diagnosed with anxiety before I got into high school, and it was physically obvious, I had lunch with my teachers for four years,” she said laughing. “There’s a reason teachers are considered -- and should be considered -- a safe place to go.”

However, educators aren’t always trained to respond in appropriate ways, she said.

While you might think that mental health advocates would be thrilled at the opportunity to pass legislation that would boost funding for services, Manzi said she wants to eliminate the link between violence and mental illness. “The country and policymakers and those in power of influencing practice, are jumping to this impulse to almost glamorize mental illness and mental health issues,” she said.

Joymara Coleman, 23, who joined Youth In Mind because of her own experience with mental illness, said, “We are just now getting to the place where we can actually speak out and say, ‘We have mental illness.’ And to draw the link between these unfortunate events that happen, like the Aurora shooting and the Newtown shooting, and mental illness -- it’s a way to really cheapen and devalue our struggle... It’s a way to demonize folks that have already been demonized so much,” she said.

So, if alerting the authorities to every student with a mental illness isn’t the solution to school safety, what is?

Manzi said she would like to see an overall culture of wellness integrated into public schools, where things like nutrition and access to health care and medication are considered when assessing a student’s mood or behavior. “If we think we can lean on each other, we don’t become so scared.... I think my life would have been much different if we had this culture of wellness,” said Manzi.” 

Crosscurrents Education