Psychologist: College students can help us improve mental health care for children | Opinion

by Morris C. Despair

Whether there really is a “crisis” in children’s mental health, there is clearly a problem for which there are no immediate solutions. One cannot quickly make qualified mental health professionals. Recently, new light is being shed on the relatively small percentage of blacks and other non-whites entering the mental health field, as well as the small percentage within that group that specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Messages from public health officials about the importance of school prevention strategies, especially those focused on students’ social, emotional and personal development, are being heard, but they are being paid attention too slowly. “Changing” the school so that it becomes a sustainable source of mental health benefits for students usually takes at least three to five years. While we must start this strategy immediately, and with serious intent, this will not remedy the current situation.

There is a temporary strategy, a combination of treatment and prevention, that can be used in many places now, to improve conditions in the present while long-term solutions are put into practice. This implies a broader use of youth guidance.

Our two- and four-year colleges and universities are a huge and bountiful resource for mentors for children and teens. For many young people, having someone to talk to other than parents or educational staff can be attractive. College students often appear more approachable, have a chance to voice their concerns, get reassurance, learn some coping strategies, and have someone to follow can relieve the degree of tension that can turn a situation from difficult but manageable to something beyond a child’s ability to handle with her.

As an example, the Youth Mentoring Program at Rutgers University through Collaborative Center for Community Participation Undergraduates prepare to be in supervised direction roles with students from New Brunswick, the metropolitan area where Rutgers is located. This program has been going on for many years and is expanding in response to the greater needs of New Brunswick students.

The mentoring role brings a wide range of college students, across disciplines and disciplines, into contact with diverse youth groups. This can increase the likelihood that they will choose careers focused on children and young adults, whether in medicine, law, psychology, social work, counseling, or of course teaching. Just as mentors benefit from these helping relationships, school youth benefit when their mentors help guide them to be sources of help and support for others.

In fact, the principle of “auxiliary therapy” is well known – even when things are not going well for us, we often feel better when we are helping others. Being of service to others is a “preventive” strategy for the school-age population – from preschool through college.

There is a clear understanding that when Rutgers students encounter situations outside of their understanding, or in which they have a sense of danger, they should sort out their concerns to the appropriate school professionals. This type of screening process enables more effective use of school mental health resources. With time and experience, college supervisors, school staff, and mentors get better and better at identifying which situations need triage and when.

Let’s be real – mentoring programs are not a panacea and they can’t appear right away. But colleges can build on existing efforts and community relationships — volunteer groups, student-teacher relationships, any internships or work arrangements, career development programs, etc. — to speed up the process. We cannot allow perfection to be the enemy of good.

There is no reason why the mentoring strategy cannot be replicated in every district of New Jersey where there is a two- or four-year college, as well as in every other state, while also committing to building the school’s prevention infrastructure. Our children are waiting for us to move and they have waited a long time.

Morris C. Elias is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University Social and emotional personality development lab and the Academy of Social Emotional Learning in Schools.

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