My advocacy for School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) supports stems from personal experience.
Growing up, I felt high levels of stress and anxiousness, especially when I was in the classroom. Despite these feelings being so visually apparent, my family, teachers, and schools did nothing to help. This is why I fight for kids in the District as a PAVE parent leader; I want all our kids to receive the mental health support that I never did.
My advocacy only grew stronger following my oldest son’s high-functioning autism diagnosis. When he was first diagnosed, specialists explained that he was reaching all his developmental milestones, but aspects of his behavior needed to be addressed with the help of mental health professionals.
Approximately seven years later, I was told, yet again, that my second son also was a high-functioning autistic. While I’m fortunate that my husband and I are working alongside both my sons’ teachers and school staff to manage their behaviors, the resources to do so are limited.
As of now, both of my children’s schools do not have enough mental health clinicians or supports to meet my children’s needs, and my sons are two of many students in their respective schools with a learning disability and an IEP. The SBMH supports my sons need are WAY beyond what many of our schools can provide. This is why we need a change.
When I first joined PAVE, I was excited to join a group of parent leaders advocating for a better education system in the District. What I didn’t realize is that I’d meet so many parents whose family’s situations with mental health mirrored mine. So, it was empowering to me when we collectively voted on and selected SBMH supports as one of our #ParentPriorities this year.
And from this decision, we’ve put in the work. We’ve listened to one another and other DC parents to build our Statement of Beliefs on SBMH supports on this issue. Our Statement provides policy solutions our elected officials must prioritize to make real, long-term changes.
One of our top solutions is creating and distributing a citywide needs assessment that will help determine what mental health needs and supports currently exist in each school and what needs must be met. The design and implementation of this assessment, of course, must include the voices and support of parents and families. A needs assessment would help us learn directly from those whose voices are often lost or ignored in discussions about SBMH supports.
From the results of our 2021 Fall Back to School Survey, I learned that 55% of parents with students with an IEP are not satisfied with the mental health and social-emotional supports they receive at school. I haven’t seen many other surveys that ask about my son’s IEPs with them receiving SBMH supports. This is why an assessment created WITH parents’ input, just as we did in the PAVE survey, can ensure this representation is top of mind.
And putting into practice the solutions parents and families want to see would be supported by a strong accountability system. One that our District offices and leaders like the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH), Deputy Mayor of Education (DME), and our Mayor would use to ensure that all our agencies and organizations providing mental health supports are serving our kids.
During DC Parent Voice and Choice Week this year, I shared my family’s story during our meeting with Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White and my connection to these policy solutions. I was proud to do so because I know many parents can relate, but I hope it’s the last time I share my story and see no resulting action from our DC leaders. Consistently sharing my family’s experience and not seeing the needle move gets tiring and feels like an incomplete ending.
I want to know all the answers instead of wondering how I can provide my children SBMH supports. This means knowing where I can find these supports in every school, being able to name who is providing these supports, and determining what supports will best serve them both.
Parent leaders are ready to move forward and take steps towards real change.
To our District leaders: I’m here to tell you that our hands are out – in this budget season and the next. Prioritize our solutions and take the step to walk with us.
By Tyesha Andrews, Ward 8 PLE Board member