Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Call to Action | By Bailey Blair

On Tuesday, January 8, I addressed a panel of the state legislators representing the south-central region of Kansas; below is the statement I prepared and delivered regarding the imminent need for increased mental health awareness in our public school system and the impending cuts to mental health services.  

Bailey Blair speaking at Legislative Forum

My name is Bailey Blair, and I currently work for Wichita State University’s Center for Community Support and Research, facilitating a grant aptly named Youth Leadership Initiative in Kansas, or YLinK, which assists youth and their families struggling with mental health issues to establish leadership skills, develop social skills and healthy peer relations, transition to productive adult lives, and promote advocacy for youth state-wide.

Tonight, I am here to speak to you about mental health in the public school system. As a former high school teacher, I’ve experienced first-hand the demands that planning, instructing, and extra duties place on our teachers. I’ve also seen what impact teachers can have on individual students, both positively and negatively. I realize that budgets are tight for every sector right now; this cannot excuse negligence to one of our most marginalized populations. Despite incredible measures taken to ensure equity of treatment and provision of services to the developmentally delayed population and those with physical limitations in our schools, access to mental health services and training for teachers on these issues is falling severely behind.

It is my professional, and personal, opinion that each individual in our public education system must be provided continuing education in the fields of childhood mental health. Our teachers are the first line of defense for our children; never has this been more evident. However, many teachers report receiving little to no training on how to address mental health issues, how to establish rapport with youth with mental illness issues and their families, and how best to ensure the emotional safety of their students.

Youth with mental illness face stigmatization from educators each day. Recent studies have shown that nine out of ten young people who experience mental health issues are affected by stigma and experience negative treatment as a result of their disorders in the school and in the community. Nearly 50% of students report that this stigmatizing behavior comes from their teachers. I firmly believe that this is through no fault of the teachers or the administrative staff; they are simply not prepared to deal with such issues, and therefore, exacerbate the problem.

Specifically, teachers and school staff need training on identifying mental health issues, establishing appropriate lines of communication both with the student and with their caregivers, providing appropriate referrals to school social workers or counselors, and trauma-informed care to avoid further emotional distress to youth in their care. Most of our teachers are in the field of education because of their love of learning and their dedication to children; if provided the appropriate training in the fields of mental health, they would be our greatest resource.

Of course, this requires adequate funding for both education and mental health services. Rick Kagan, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness recently spoke regarding mental health funding in the state, saying, “At a time when we should be increasing access to treatment, we’ve been reducing that access… The problem isn’t going away. Mental illness knows no boundaries.” However, in recent years, state funding to community mental health centers has been cut by tens of millions of dollars.

I am calling you to action. The Governor's Budget, we are told, includes more cuts to mental health this year. Kansas funding for uninsured and underinsured Kansans in need of mental health treatment has been reduced by $20 million, or 50% since FY 2008. The Governor will present his budget, January 14. Please act as your constituents will you to – protect funding for mental health services, and promote funding to educate our teachers. Our children need you to.

On Friday, January 11, Governor Brownback announced $10 million for mental health care in Kansas. I urge the south-central legislative delegation to work with the Governor to ensure adequate funding for mental health services in Kansas. For more information about the YLinK initiative, reach me at bailey [dot] blair [at] wichita [dot] edu.

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