Education, Mental Health, and the Need for Discpline

There are many well-traveled education issues, but mental health remains one of the most difficult ‘invisible disabilities’ for the school system to deal with. I had the opportunity in the fall of 2007 to listen to a Vancouver DPAC sponsored talk by Dr. Kim Schonert-Reichl (UBC Faculty of Education) about youth resiliency. One of the most striking things that she discussed was the high level of clinical depression and anxiety facing adolescents in our schools today. Sadly, little is being done to address this problem and every day one hears stories of young people who fall through the cracks in a school system focused more on the management of discipline than the education of our youth.Our schools, particularly our secondary schools and universities, are large institutions that often function more like a factory than a place of learning. It is easy for young people to become lost, ignored, or simply overlooked in these institutions. Only when a child violates a specific social norm or code of conduct will they catch the attention of school authorities. And, then it is more often that hand of discipline rather than the arms of care that is extended.

Research on the subject of the type of disciplinary approaches typically used (i.e. restriction of access to school via suspension, transfer, or expulsion) tends to demonstrate that they are ineffective in correcting inappropriate behaviours. One UBC study by Cheryl Amen found that each time a student was transferred their likelihood of school completion diminished. The effect was magnified for aboriginal students. Yet school districts like Vancouver’s still uses administrative transfers as a means of discipline.

What is needed are approaches to students that work with their disability –not punishes the student for a symptom of their illness. Yet one school administrator recently said to me that disciplinary consequences are important mechanisms to ensure that a student understands that inappropriate behaviour is not tolerated. Most reasonable people would agree that inappropriate behaviour should not be tolerated. However, a discipline first approach that penalizes a youth for their illness does not make sense. Nor will it likely be effective in achieving a durable solution. Study after study has demonstrated that punitive approaches to discipline do not work. In fact, such approaches will allow a child to escape the real consequences for their actions and leaves the underlying health problems to continue.

We need effective mental health supports and programs in our schools. We need approaches to discipline that take a compassionate and evidence-based approach toward inappropriate behaviour. We need administrators, counselors enrolling teachers to have more effective training and support so that they can work with, rather than against, the learning needs of children with invisible disabilities.

Some related articles:
Depression: illness, not weakness
Better mental-health services needed for youth, group says
Mental-health services earn a positive review
Children, Youth and Mental Disorders | Here to Help, A BC Information Resource for Individuals and Families Managing Mental Health or Substance Use Problems

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