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New Group Forms for Parents

Psychologists, parents, educators to examine school services for students with mental illness.

Parents with children with mental illnesses will want to get involved in a new work group being formed by Arlington County Public Schools aimed at improving the district's services for students with mental illnesses.

The work group, consisting of parents, teachers and specialists, had its first meeting recently and the new group will make recommendations to the School Board on how to better manage Arlington's 262 students classified as having "emotional disturbances," said Arlington's new director of special education, Norma Villanueva.

"The purpose of this group is to see what areas need attention," Villanueva said.

The number of students in Arlington living with mental illnesses is likely much higher than schools realize, but identifying those students is a challenge, Villanueva said.

"At this point, what we really need is for families to identify them to us or for students to do it themselves," she said. "We have a continuing effort to provide strong services to these students."

Improvements to the current system cannot come fast enough, according to some parents.

"They don't really have any decent services," said one parent who is not being identified to protect the identity of her 16-year-old son who has a bipolar disorder coupled with psychotic behavior. "They're reluctant to send kids to mental health facilities unless they are violent, and all they do is just complain that my son isn't doing enough in class."

But teachers can only do so much, according to Naomi Verduggo, an organizer with Arlington's chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), which helped to organize the work group.

"We don't expect teachers to diagnose students," Verduggo said. "What we're looking for from teachers is to raise the red flag when students exhibit behaviors that are outside the norm."

Verduggo added that part of the problem is that giving a psychological diagnosis to children is a relatively new idea.

"Now, child psychologists are more willing to diagnose earlier," she said. "If you can intervene earlier, you have a better chance to help them."

Mental health issues in schools, Verduggo said, are an ongoing topic of discussion among educators throughout the United States.

"It's a challenge," she said. "I could not name a school system that is very sophisticated in managing students with mental illness. Arlington has a long way to go, but so do a lot of school systems. But at least this is on Arlington's radar."

Many parents are eager to get involved in the new group.

"This is something that is very needed," Verduggo said.

She added that many Arlington parents whose children have mental illnesses have elected to send them to private schools.

Arlington has a program in place, called Interlude, for students dealing with emotional disturbances. It entails a curriculum for middle and high school students that is coupled with regular therapy and counseling. It is the only program of its kind in Arlington. As the name implies, students are only assigned to the program for a short time, most often for about the length of a school year.

"Sometimes it's extended if they are working through a particularly rough period," Villanueva said.

Villanueva described Arlington's approach to students with mental illness as an involved one, consisting of discussions with psychologists and social workers that is, at times, supported with help from the county's Department of Human Services.

"We try to work collaboratively," she said. "I'm sure the work group will bring us some new information and some new ideas."

Statistics from the National Mental Health Association state that more than 54 million Americans in any given year are living with some form of mental illness, but fewer than 8 million seek treatment. One in five children have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder. Up to one in 10 may suffer from a serious emotional disturbance, but 70 percent of children do not receive mental health services. Twenty percent of youths in juvenile justice facilities also have a serious emotional disturbance, and most have a diagnosable mental disorder. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses. They affect an estimated 19 million Americans each year.