Just a few months back, Miguel was feeling pretty awful. “Every day it would be a habit, I would just cry for no reason, and I would think to myself negative thoughts,” says the 10th-grader, who attends Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School on West 46th Street in Manhattan. His grades began to drop. Usually soft-spoken, Miguel began getting more aggressive, “coming out all nasty at people who didn’t even deserve that.”
Nasty as he may have been, Miguel was also one of the luckier angst-ridden students in the New York City public schools. His school has an on-site social worker who tends exclusively to teens’ psyches. Miguel knew about her, asked for an appointment— and got one. These days he talks with his new therapist once a week. And, despite a recent breakup with his girlfriend, he is crying less and doing better in school.
Unfortunately, most miserable kids get lost amid the more than 1 million students in city public schools. Even when teachers or guidance counselors do pick out particularly violent or isolated students, mental health services frequently aren’t available for them.
Only 204 of the city’s 1136 public schools have on-site services to help emotionally disturbed kids. The Board of Education does not provide therapists who help students. When available, social workers and psychologists are sent into schools by a handful of independent organizations that partly rely on charitable contributions. Often, they spend only a small part of the week there.
Such a slapdash approach to student mental health is not unusual. The public schools in Littleton, Colorado, eliminated school-based social workers several years ago. The school where the now notorious high school murders took place also recently restricted psychologists to testing, according to a Colorado-based mental health worker whose child attended Columbine.
In New York, many mental health providers would like to expand their work in schools but are unable to get the licenses necessary to do so. That’s because the state dispenses such “satellite licenses” sparingly, according to some mental health workers, who attribute the reluctance to issue licenses to a desire to keep spending down.
“With the licenses comes the right to bill Medicaid, and the state doesn’t want that,” explains Paul Levine of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, which funds school-based mental health in 14 public schools in Manhattan. Mental health agencies can bill Medicaid about $60 for a 45-minute session if a student happens to be covered by that program. (At press time, the state Department of Mental Health had not returned calls for comment.)
The fight over money for school-based mental health services is hardly new. For the past four years, the state assembly has passed— and the Republican-led state senate has killed— the Safe Schools, Safe Children bill, which would provide for school psychological programs and other preventive services at an estimated cost of $1520 million. The current version, which includes a ban on assault weapons, passed the assembly this Monday. This time senate majority leader Joe Bruno— moved, no doubt, by the Littleton-inspired panic over school violence— has said he may even consider it.
The gruesome shootings in Colorado have also heightened the sense of urgency of those on the front lines. “It made us aware of how much preventive services are needed,” says Joan Daly, who has worked in the public schools for the past 10 years. Daly, who is employed by the Youth Counseling League, is booked solid through the end of the year helping kids muddle through the challenges of being a new immigrant and the effects of physical violence, sexual abuse, and a special brand of cruelty that’s emerged in New York’s high schools.
Jasmine, a senior at West Manhattan Outreach school who is in treatment with Daly, explains: “It’s all about clothing and money.” With jock culture hobbled here by a lack of funding for extracurricular activities, “people watch what you wear,” says Jasmine. “If you don’t have the right pair of sneakers, you get teased all the time.”
Such concerns might not seem worthy of serious attention. But as Littleton heightens our awareness of the dangers of suffering students (and a mayor boneheaded enough to choose this time to suggest blowing up the entire school system), it also points out the importance of helping kids deal with these more mundane matters before they spin out of control.
For Jasmine, counseling has been lifesaving. “In my family, no one listens to me,” she says matter-of-factly. “Ms. Daly listens to me. I never miss an appointment with her. If I don’t tell her about what’s happened, I’ll explode.”
Research assistance: Ginger Adams Otis