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

By Maurice J. Elias

Whether or not there really is a “crisis” in children’s mental health, there is clearly a problem with no immediate solution. Skilled mental health professionals cannot be produced quickly. Recently, new light has been shed on the relatively small percentage of blacks and other non-whites who enter the mental health field, as well as the small percentage within this group who specialize in working with children and adolescents.

Messages from public health officials about the importance of school-based prevention strategies, especially those that focus on students’ social, emotional and character development, are being heard but too slowly heeded. “Transforming” a school to become a lasting source of mental health benefits for students typically takes at least three to five years. While we should embark on this strategy immediately, and with serious intent, it will not fix the current situation.

There is an interim strategy, a combination of treatment and prevention, that can be used in many places now, to improve current circumstances while longer-term solutions are implemented. This involves more widespread use of youth mentoring.

Our two- and four-year colleges and universities are a wonderful and abundant source of mentors for children and teens. For many young people, having someone to talk to other than parents or educators can be appealing. Students often seem more approachable, and having the opportunity to voice concerns, be reassured, learn coping strategies, and have someone available for follow-up can lessen the degree of stress that can transform a difficult but manageable situation into something beyond a child’s ability to cope.

For example, a youth mentorship program at Rutgers University through its Collaborating Center for Community Engagement prepares undergraduate students to take on a supervised mentorship role with students in New Brunswick, an urban district with which Rutgers is co-located. This program has been in existence for many years and is expanding in response to the greater needs of New Brunswick students.

The mentoring role connects a wide range of college students, across all disciplines and majors, with diverse youth populations. This can increase the likelihood that they will choose careers that focus on children and youth, whether in medicine, law, psychology, social work, counseling or, of course, teaching. And just as mentors benefit from these helping relationships, young people in the school benefit when their mentors help them become sources of help and support for others.

Indeed, the principle of “assistive therapy” is well known: even when things are not going well for us, we often feel better when we help others. Being of service to others is a “prevention” strategy for school-aged populations – from kindergarten to middle school.

It is clearly understood that when Rutgers students encounter situations that are beyond their understanding or about which they have a presentiment, they should raise their concerns with the appropriate school professionals. This type of triage process allows for more effective use of school mental health resources. Over time and with experience, academic supervisors, school staff, and mentors get better and better at identifying situations that require triage and when.

Let’s face it: mentoring programs are not a panacea and cannot spring up instantly. But colleges can build on existing community efforts and relationships – volunteer groups, student-teacher relationships, any internship or internship arrangements, career development programs, etc. – to speed up the process. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

There’s no reason a mentoring strategy can’t be replicated in every locality in New Jersey where there’s a two- or four-year college, as well as in every other state, while engaging to build our school-based prevention infrastructure. Our children are waiting for us to act and they have waited long enough.

Maurice J. Elias is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and directs the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab and the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools.

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