teachercrpdI started drinking and drugging when I was 14-years-old. I eased into it. I didn’t drink or use drugs everyday and it would take decades before I was. But it definitely started when I was 14. I was a freshman and I did it more to impress the 16-year-old junior I had a crush on that because I wanted to get high.

But as the years went by, I realized that despite the horrific hangovers and drama that followed my drinking bouts – many of them that ended in a blackout – I discovered that for a little while – maybe just a few hours – drinking made me feel good. I did not know that alcohol was a depressant and was making my depression and mania worse. All I knew was that a drink or a joint took away the darkness for awhile.

That is how self-medicating begins. And it will always – ALWAYS – end badly. It did for me.

I am telling you this because we need to screen our youth – all of them – for mental illness and we need to do it in school. Why? Because maybe it would have helped a kid like me. Back in the 1970’s we didn’t know a lot about mental illness, especially in kids. We do now. And we are ignoring the greatest asset we have – teachers – in helping our kids.

Kids often spend more of their waking hours with their teachers than their parents. Teachers see our kids interact with their peers in ways a parent never will. They see our kids when they are not under the influence of video games, television or music. They see how our kids behave when they eat and exercise with others. They see our kids compete with others, not just on game day but day-to-day.

Let’s admit it: In many ways, they know our kids better than we do.

So, why are we ignoring this incredibly valuable opportunity to help our kids. At school our kids receiving hearing and vision screenings. We require students to be vaccinated. We feed them. We send them home from school when fevers spike and upchucking begins. We spend so much time and money educating their growing brains but we completely ignore the health of their brains.

I got to thinking about this because the newspaper I work for, The Palm Beach Post,  is running a series on mental health and as part of that series are  a couple of articles about students with mental illnesses.

For more than a decade, everyone from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the U.S. surgeon general has urged that all children also be screened for mental health – but it’s not happened.

No state in this country and only one country in the world – Chile – systematically screens all of its children for mental health in schools.

Lawmakers in Connecticut are considering becoming the first state to offer universal mental health screening for all students. More often, teachers receive training on how to spot troubled students. But by then, the child has gotten into trouble. Screening does not mean that child will be medicated, just as a child who is screened for vision problems or hearing problems will not automatically get glasses or a hearing aid – although they should. That’s a decision for parents.

When we think of students with mental health problems, we think of teenagers. What we don’t realize is that little kids – little kids – can have debilitating mental illnesses. Another article in our paper explained that “last school year, Palm Beach County school police drove students to mental health facilities 256 times – an average of more than once every school day – for examination under Florida’s Baker Act.” The Baker Act permits a 72-hour involuntary commitment for people believed to be a danger to themselves or others.

The article opens with a girl in kindergarten who is so out of control that police were called: “But when police went to cuff her, they realized: Her tiny wrists were too slim.”

There are very few beds for young children who are involuntarily committed for psych evaluations. As someone who has done some volunteer work in lock-down facilities that take Baker Act patients, you don’t want to put a child in the same population as adults who are under 72-hour observation.

What’s the solution? Money. Once again, we need money to pay for training programs for counselors, school nurses and police. We need money for beds for young people who are involuntarily committed. We need money not just to train teachers, but to pay them more.

My mother taught second-grade for nearly 30 years. Towards the end of her career she saw so many troubled kids that she did not know how she could help. She had no training on the law, how mental illness manifests in kids or whether any programs existed. She anguished over those little ones.

I know teachers already have enough on their plates. They don’t need to become mental health specialists, too. But like it or not, they are the best ones to identify mental health problems in our kids. If we are going to ask them to do this – and many already do – we need to train them and pay them more to do it.

As for me, maybe if my teachers had known what to look for they would have discovered that I was self-medicating my depression with drugs and alcohol. In hindsight I can see that when I quit my short and intense career of competitive swimming midway through high-school, I started drinking and drugging. I needed something to replace the endorphins.

I’m certainly not blaming anyone for what happened or did not happen to me. However, we are all to blame if we don’t take this opportunity to do something now, before another child has to be handcuffed.

Teacher photo available from Shutterstock