Can Prioritizing Mental Health Services in Schools Reduce Violence?

8162282545_99fb83c1e5_qBy Dena Goldstein, Chicago AVODAH Corps member

“Close your eyes. Relax your body and take some deep breaths,” I say to my participants.

At A Safe Haven, my placement site, I developed a six-week communication and customer service job-training program for adults who are homeless, on house arrest, and/or in recovery. The goal is to prepare participants for entry-level positions in customer service, clerical work, retail, and reception.

Occasionally, I lead my participants in a visualization exercise.

“Visualize your favorite place,” I tell them. “It could be the beach, a baseball game, or in your parent’s backyard. What colors do you see? Create a vivid, vibrant picture.”

I chose to incorporate this exercise into my training because I thought it would promote a sense of mindfulness as well as de-stress participants. The feedback was positive: soothing and relaxing were common descriptions of the exercise. One participant thought it could help with anger management. Other mental health strategies I’ve incorporated into my training include drafting a personal mission statement and S.M.A.R.T. goal setting, a self-improvement and personal development tool.

When I stumbled upon PBS Newshour’s “Reading, Writing, Therapy,” which discusses the benefits of integrating a behavioral therapy program into lesson plans, I instantly thought of my trainings.

The behavioral therapy program is called COPE; it’s short for Creating Opportunities for Personal Empowerment. One middle school in Ohio is piloting the program, which focuses on goal setting, problem solving, and stress-reduction. The program also places emphasis on boosting self-esteem, reducing depression, anxiety and controlling anger.

Many urban, under-resourced areas fail to offer accessible, preventative, and coordinated mental health services. Just last year, Chicago closed 6 of its 12 mental health clinics, due to budget cuts. Imagine if Chicago Public Schools launched a program like COPE for K-12 students, which raised awareness for mental health services and expanded access to low-income students of color.

About 85 percent of CPS students are African American or Latino and live in communities of color. According to a Colorado Trust Report on mental health disparities in communities of color, oppression and discrimination can lead to such symptoms as depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and low self-esteem.  Youth in highly-impoverished communities face family difficulties, frequent housing moves, and lack of recreational activities. The coping strategies will better prepare youth for stressful environments and situations by interrupting negative thought patterns or reactive behaviors. Incorporating mental health strategies into the curriculum would not take away from any academic pursuit, but enrich the learning experience with invaluable, coping skills.

I say this in the midst of Chicago Public School District’s plan to close 53 elementary schools and one small high school by June this year. Many of the schools identified for closure are in high-crime, low-income communities of color. About 30,000 students will be relocated because of the closings; many will be taking unfamiliar and longer routes to new schools. Parents and teachers fear that students will have to cross into rival gang territories on their way to and from school.

Chicago Public School District responded by releasing a Safe Passage Guide, which pays nearly $8.4 million to church programs, non-profit organizations and community groups to send workers to monitor routes. The safety program recommends participation in gang awareness workshops, organizing a Walking School Bus program, and joining a violence prevention task force.

As concerns weigh on students, parents, and teachers, a program like COPE could be a crucial supplement to CPS’s K-12 curriculum. By developing anger management techniques, reducing stress and boosting self-esteem, students may feel empowered to avoid engaging in destructive, violent behavior. It may only help one child or it could end up helping the entire CPS student body; either way, one life transformed could be enough to create a collective shift in consciousness.

It’s not a holistic answer to increasing access to mental health services, but I believe it places much needed power in the hands of youth.

Dena Goldstein serves as A Safe Haven’s Communications and Social Enterprise Associate in an effort to increase funding, solidify the organization’s brand, and mentor residents in professional development. 

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