Emotional health in public schools 

A man writes a message on a cross at a makeshift memorial left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, on May 21, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Public school campuses must give careful attention to both the emotional and mental health of all students as part of their school safety plans. In order to do so, it is important to recognize the recent research indicating a distinct difference between mental and emotional health. 

Mental illness is neurological — a chemical imbalance in the brain. It is manifested in conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and is primarily treated by behavior modification counseling and drug therapy. While therapists play an important role in these treatments, the cause of the problem is organic and not seen as rooted in early parent/caregiver-child interactions. 

Emotional illness has primarily environmental origins. It is characterized by feelings of being unwanted and unloved, a lack of empathy and an inability to control emotions such as anger. Effective treatment requires positive changes in emotional relationships.

In addressing extreme school violence, understanding the difference between mental and emotional health is critical. Contrary to popular belief, mental illness is not the root cause of the vast majority of school shootings. In fact, the University of Southern Illinois Medical School has presented a study of 157 school shooting incidents concluding that only 17% of the shooters showed signs of mental illness. The primary culprit is emotional illness.

Most young school shooters are acutely emotionally ill. They almost always come from homes where they are abused or neglected, and typically are ostracized, shamed and bullied at school. They live with heart-shattering feelings of social isolation and, enraged and seeking revenge, they decide to “make the world pay” through horrific acts of violence. As one teen age killer was quoted in Newsweek,“I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.” 

Newsweek reported on two teens who recently pleaded guilty to a plot to bomb their high school in Woodstock, Georgia. A family member of Victoria McCurley, one of the students, said, “McCurley was the victim of bullying and neglect. Her dark social media posts were cries for help and her plans to hurt others were a mask for her desire to hurt herself.” The one constant among young school shooters appears to be a strong sense of emotional rejection.

A recent Harvard study shows that a child’s best defense in the face of adversity is a strong, supportive relationship with at least one caring adult. School programs helping teachers develop skills for showing intentional care can make an important contribution to students’ emotional health. We are not talking about classroom behavior-management programs or student character-building courses; they serve a purpose but are not primarily designed to foster teacher/student relationships. Schools need programs specifically designed to help teachers provide unconditional care and respect to all students so that they feel valued and wanted. 

Showing intentional care to students is a key element in elevating the social-emotional climate of a campus and tamping down school violence, creating what Dr. Amy Klinger, executive director of the Educator’s School Safety Network, calls a “relationship-based campus.” 

The Washington Post surveyed all the schools in its database where school shootings have occurred since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Of the 79 schools contacted, 34 replied with answers, including Sandy Hook. Asked “what, if anything, could have prevented the shooting on your campus,” almost half said that nothing could have been done. Several schools, however, emphasized “the critical importance of their staffs developing deep, trusting relationships with students, who often hear about threats before teachers do.” Teachers call this phenomenon “disclosure,” and it is a powerful tool in the prevention of school violence.

To engender caring, trusting teacher/student relationships, schools could:

  • Provide online courses where teachers receive training on how to provide intentional respect and care to all students. Teachers meet once a month in small groups to discuss the lessons and share important information regarding their students.
  • Provide frequent small-group meetings where teachers can review lessons, mentor one another and collaborate on challenging situations involving emotionally needy students.

While educators understandably feel stressed at the thought of squeezing additional meetings into an already overloaded school calendar, small-group meetings and ongoing training will lead to a more positive school climate and, by reducing classroom disruption, provide more time for actual teaching.Group interaction also provides teachers an opportunity to jointly identify students who need special attention and/or referrals to a licensed professional school counselor and/or the campus threat assessment team.

Students who feel respected and accepted are more likely to handle feelings in a constructive way and less likely to resort to violence. And students in caring, trusting relationships with teachers are more likely to reveal potential problems so that interventions can take place.

Dr. Heather Lench, chair of the Department of Psychology and Brain Science at Texas A&M University, says that programs designed to help teachers provide unconditional care and respect benefit all students, not just those with a potential for violence. School safety plans should include emotional health programming that helps all participants on a campus to feel valued, connected and safe. 

This is one of a pair of op-eds on emotional and mental health in public schools. The other is at this link.

B. Glenn Wilkerson

President, ARKGroup

Robert Brooks

Clinical psychologist, Harvard Medical School (part-time)

Jacqueline Shuman

Assistant superintendent, Santa Fe ISD