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File photo Credit: Jamie Martines

Mental illness is an issue that affects the lives of Americans regardless of their ethnicity, race, income or geographic location. But some groups encounter environmental stressors including trauma that have a negative impact on their overall well-being.

In a previous opinion essay for The Hechinger Report, I highlighted the steps Baltimore is taking to combat community mental health challenges, noting that the barriers members of the African-American community encounter are rooted in historical inequities from years of de jure and de facto segregation.

Black and white students continue to have divergent experiences, post-Brown v. Board of Education.

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For example, the resource gap has contributed to disparate mental health outcomes. Acknowledging the connection between race, trauma and mental health is critical.

This is particularly important for African-American students who live in underserved communities. Ensuring members of the school-based staff have been properly trained to recognize students in need of mental health support is key to their long-term success. Unfortunately, a national study, “Racial and ethnic disparities in mental health care for children and young adults,” determined that minority youth with mental health problems are more likely to be victims of the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the authors, “the under-provision of mental health care for minority children contrasts starkly with the high frequency of punitive sanctions that their behaviors elicit.” Essentially, subgroups in need of the most mental health support are more likely to be suspended or expelled. For this reason, teachers and administrators have to take steps to change the school culture.

Related: Nonwhite students slow to seek mental health counseling for which they’re more in need

Throughout my teaching career I encountered students with a variety of mental health challenges. Frequently, these students experienced traumatic experiences including intrafamilial and community violence.

“Far too often, students who are perceived to have academic or mental health challenges are simply misunderstood.”

For example, I taught a student with a diagnosed mental illness who struggled to connect with administrators and teachers. While finding common ground was difficult, I understood it was my responsibility to closely follow his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and find a way to meet his needs.

Similar to the relationships with some of my other students, the journey was littered with misunderstandings and moments of self-reflection after class. Eventually we found common ground and he began to participate in class and turn in assignments. However, I realized our relationship began to improve when I confronted my biases, read numerous studies on teacher-student relationships and consulted with colleagues.

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My experience mirrors the challenges of teachers and administrators throughout the United States. It’s important that school districts in rural, suburban, and urban areas ensure members of the school based staff have access to comprehensive professional development and understand cultural norms.

Far too often, students who are perceived to have academic or mental health challenges are simply misunderstood.

In retrospect I realize that teaching numerous students with mental health challenges informed my worldview.

Today my research focuses on how race, trauma and mental health intersect for students in preK-20 settings. I’m dedicated to helping educators understand the unique needs of students. Recently, I co-authored a book chapter with my colleague Dr. Ramon B. Goings titled,A Dream Deferred: How Trauma Impacts the Academic Achievement of African Youth.”

The chapter highlights economic and social barriers African-American students have to overcome, while contextualizing the historical factors that contribute to the resource gap. Collectively, our more than a decade of experience working in preK-12 settings taught us that it is imperative that teachers be given the tools to understand student’s needs. For this reason, we focused on the individual (students), familial, community and school culture and student behaviors.

Related: Teacher prep fails to prepare educators for diversity, child trauma, panel says

Overall we provided several suggestions that can help administrators and teachers develop secure relationships with students and parents and properly diagnose African-American students.

The recommendations included: 1) increasing access to school-based mental health practitioners; 2) developing and implementing mental health initiatives; 3) providing professional development (mental health-focused) for school-based staff and 4) strengthening outreach efforts to parents.

It’s important to recognize that addressing the needs of historically under-resourced communities is not a simple task. The resource and access gap developed over decades, and will require a coordinated effort from external and internal stakeholders.

In schools throughout the nation students from various backgrounds look to teachers for guidance. We have to help students navigate life’s pitfalls.

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This must include acknowledging when we are struggling to understand the unique needs of students. Like most teachers I had my share of good and bad days. Teaching is a profession that tests the fortitude of the most committed educators. However, you learn important lessons about students that can change your perspective.

After my initial experience teaching a student diagnosed with a mental illness I was better prepared to understand another student the following year. Each experience taught me the importance of recognizing biases, seeking assistance from colleagues and learning to connect with students. It also taught me that all teachers make mistakes.

Years after leaving the classroom I often wonder how some of my students are progressing. They taught me how to see beyond misconceptions and become a better teacher. Educators should consider how their experiences shape their interactions with students. This is particularly important when they serve students’ with various challenges.

Despite stereotypes, individuals with anxiety disorders or mental health challenges continue to live productive lives. If we properly identify students at an early age, they would benefit from developing secure relationships with mental health practitioners with similar lived experiences. Without early identification and access we risk contributing to their downward spiral.

Dr. Larry J. Walker is a researcher focusing on issues that affect the academic performance and socio-emotional functioning of students throughout the education pipeline. He is a previous congressional fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and legislative director for former Congressman Major R. Owens.

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