Misunderstanding and fear are common among people who have incorrect ideas about mental illness. The result: Young people suffering with mental health issues feel isolated, believing that there’s something innately wrong with them that can never change.
In 2018, public schools in New York State were mandated to begin educating students about mental health. Among the goals are to recognize when help is needed and to learn how to find help. This initiative was the result of long-overdue legislation signed by Governor Cuomo in 2016.
But offering instruction aimed at advancing emotional wellness and reducing stigma is not the norm everywhere. For example, trouble is brewing in a school system in Raleigh, North Carolina regarding a program that was initiated to support students’ emotional well-being.
A group of Raleigh parents who identify themselves as “Parents for the Protection of Students” hired an attorney to advocate for them against the school system’s use of “Community Circles” to build a sense of belonging and friendship.
I obtained a copy of the attorney’s letter, which was addressed to the Apex Middle School principal and which lays out the parents’ concerns. Although the school initiative in the Raleigh schools was not mental health instruction per se, it was, in essence, an effort to support the mental health of students.
Following is a portion of their attorney’s five-page letter:
“I represent PARENTS FOR THE PROTECTION OF STUDENTS, an unincorporated grassroots association of concerned Wake County parents who have been disturbed by recent actions taken by the Wake County Public School System.
“The specific concern addressed by this letter is a practice that has been instituted at Apex Middle School and perhaps other schools in the system as well – ‘the Circle’ . . . As described by our parents and their children, as well as the school’s own materials about the Circle, it is expressly intended to address ‘difficult emotions and difficult realities.’ Moreover, this activity effectively compels disclosure of highly sensitive and personal information from students, including the following [partial list]:
• What it means to “listen from and speak from the heart.”
• Answering, “If you were a kind of weather today, what would it be?”
• What it feels like to be “bullied.”
• Talking about a “high point” and a “low point” in the student’s past week.
• Describing “friendship” for the student.
• Aspirations for who the student wishes to be.
• Describing the student’s family.
• Experiences of being “hurt” and “angry.”
“The program makes clear that its purpose is to ‘talk about [the student’s] feelings’ and furthermore that there is ‘no hiding behind a desk.’ These are not academic topics; they are topics for a group therapy session.
“Group therapy, like other forms of traditional psychological treatment and counseling, can bring great benefit to many people. But it is not within the purview of a school to conduct such treatment during the school day, without parental consent, and outside of the supervision of duly-trained and licensed psychological and counseling professionals. Therefore, we call for the immediate discontinuation of this activity.”
In researching the implementation of the Circle, what I discovered is that although school staff members were trained in implementing the Circle program, an important step was missed in planning these groups.
In my role as a licensed clinical social worker, I have worked with children and teenagers in groups since the early 1970s. I have written extensively on the subject, including the textbook, Group Work with Adolescents: Principles and Practice, now in its 3rd edition.
In the case of the Wake County School System, I believe parents are rightfully upset. From what I have been able to gather, the parents were not adequately informed about the Circle program or told that they had a choice to opt out.
Balancing the tenuous relationship among parent, child and school should be paramount when a program like the Circle is being considered. This requires foresight and careful attention, particularly before rolling out a program that is not academic in nature.
Forging a working alliance with parents of children who participate in mental health-oriented groups in a school system is essential. For a group-oriented mental health program like this to succeed in a school, this important element of planning cannot be overlooked.
Although it will require extra work to fully engage parents, in the end it will be worth the effort to implement a successful program and prevent the kind of fallout that the school system in Raleigh is now experiencing.
Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.