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NAMI Educates Schools about Mental Illnesses

By Darcy Gruttadaro, JD
Director, NAMI Child & Adolescent Action Center

August 23, 2005

Children and adolescents with mental illnesses often struggle in our nation’s schools. Most school professionals do not know how to address the academic and social needs of students with mental illnesses. The reason is often quite simple – they receive little to no training.

Students in the "emotional disturbance" designation under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA – our nation’s federal special education law), which includes those with mental illnesses, have the lowest academic achievement and highest dropout and failure rates of any disability group.

President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health has called on schools to play an important role in helping to identify students with the early warning signs of mental illnesses and linking them with services1. This comes at a critical time because currently approximately 1 in 10 children and adolescents suffers from a mental illness serious enough to cause significant impairment. Yet, only about 20% are identified and receive treatment.

Youth spend the majority of their day in school. It represents a low stigma setting for youth and families. Research shows that "school mental health programs improve educational outcomes by decreasing absences, decreasing discipline referrals and improving test scores2." More and more, NAMI is partnering with schools to help them identify students with mental illnesses and to improve the educational outcomes of these students. Yet we have a long way to go.

Stats and Facts

50% of students identified with emotional disturbances drop out of high school, compared to 30% of all students with disabilities3.

Currently, there are 513 students per school counselor, the recommended ratio is 250:1.

Only 18% of youth with the emotional disturbance designation under IDEA were employed full time after high school, while another 21% worked part time4.

Here are 10 things that you can do to make a difference in the lives of students living with mental illnesses…

  1. Educate school professionals about early onset mental illnesses. NAMI has a wonderful publication titled Parents and Teachers as Allies, designed to help school professionals recognize the early warning signs of mental illnesses in students and how to communicate effectively with families about their concerns. We recommend that you share a copy with your school. NAMI is developing a national education program around the publication to be used in educating school professionals.

    The more that school professionals understand about early onset mental illnesses and the behaviors and warning signs that may be exhibited, the less likely they will be to inappropriately label a child as bad, dumb, or disinterested in school.

  2. Ask school officials about the in-service or continuing education training that is provided to school professionals so that they understand how to meet the academic and functional needs of students with mental illnesses. If the answer is little to none, ask for that to change.
  3. Ask state and local education officials about steps they are taking to address the extremely low academic achievement and outrageously high failure and drop out rates of students with mental illnesses. School drop out is currently an issue of great concern to Governors, school officials and private corporate and community leaders. Stress the vital need to work together to develop strategies to improve the 50% drop out rate for students with mental illnesses receiving special education services.
  4. Use school board elections, which are often highly competitive, to ask candidates about their position on improving the academic achievement of students with mental illnesses. Educate them about early onset mental illnesses. Ask parents in your communities to attend candidate forums to ask their position on these issues. Then hold them accountable when they are elected.
  5. Ask school administrators and principals about bringing NAMI programs that address stigma into the schools. Stigma presents a major barrier to more youth and families coming forward. Education programs for students, like In Our Own Voice and Breaking the Silence, help to "normalize" the illnesses and to dispel the myths and stereotypes.
  6. Ask college and university officials in your state and community whether their curriculum is designed to help future teachers of America understand early onset mental illnesses.
  7. Develop strong partnerships with influential school and civic groups that care about the health and well being of children. These groups (PTAs, Junior League, Rotary, Jaycees, Kiwanis, and others) may work with you to raise broader awareness in schools and communities about mental illnesses in children.
  8. Talk with the special education coordinator for your school district about organizing presentations for parents of students with mental illnesses. You may find allies among these parents who are willing to share the load with you in helping to educate the school community.
  9. Ask school leaders in your community whether they know that President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health has recommended in Goal 4 that schools play a larger role in identifying students with mental illnesses and linking them to services. If not, provide information on how they can obtain a free copy of the report at or bring them a copy of the executive summary.
  10. Let schools know that you and other NAMI families stand ready to help. Schools have an enormous amount on their plates and shrinking state and local budgets so it may be a bit challenging to get them to focus on students with mental illnesses. Your best bet is to let them know you recognize their limited resources and are there to help.

Lots of NAMI leaders at the state and local levels are doing outstanding and creative work in helping to educate schools about mental illnesses in children and adolescents and in beginning to hold schools accountable for academic achievement. Please contact Patricia Braun (, 703-600-1110), NAMI’s Program Coordinator for the Child & Adolescent Action Center, to learn more about some of these activities.

1.  New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, Achieving the Promise: Transforming Mental Health Care in America. Final Report. DHHS Pub. No. SMA-03-3832. Rockville, MD: 2003. You can order a free copy of this report by visiting their web site at

2.  New Freedom Commission report at p. 62.

3.  U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (2001). Twenty-third Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Results

4.  NFC Final Report at p. 30.

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