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

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By Maurice J. Elias

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

Public health officials’ messages about the importance of school-based prevention strategies, especially those that focus on students’ social, emotional and character development, are being heard but heeded too slowly. To “turn around” a school so it becomes a sustained source of mental health benefit to students typically takes at least three to five years. While we should be embarking on this strategy immediately, and with serious intent, this will not address the current situation.

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

Our two- and four-year colleges and universities are a tremendous and abundant source of mentors for children and adolescents. For many youths, having someone to talk to other than parents or educational staff can be appealing. College students often seem more approachable, and having an opportunity to express concerns, get reassurance, learn some coping strategies, and have someone available for follow-up can alleviate the degree of stress that can turn a situation from difficult but manageable into something beyond a child’s capacity to deal with.

As an example, a youth mentoring program at Rutgers University through its Collaborative Center for Community Engagement prepares undergraduates to be in supervised mentoring roles with students from New Brunswick, an urban district with which Rutgers is co-located. This program has been going on for many years and is expanding in response to the larger needs of the New Brunswick students.

The mentoring role brings a wide range of college students, across disciplines and majors, into contact with diverse youth populations. This can increase the likelihood of their choosing careers focused on children and youth, whether in medicine, law, psychology, social work, counseling, or, of course, teaching. And just as the mentors benefit from these helping relationships, the school youth benefit when their mentors help direct them to be sources of help and support for others.

Indeed, the “helper therapy” principle is well known — even when things are not going well for us, we often feel better when we are helpful to others. Being of service to others is a “prevention” strategy for school-age populations — from preschool through college.

There is a clear understanding that when Rutgers students encounter situations that are beyond their understanding, or about which they have a sense of foreboding, they are to triage their concerns to the appropriate school professionals. This kind of triaging process allows more effective use of school mental health resources. Over time and experience, university supervisors, school personnel, and mentors get better and better at identifying which situations need triage, and when.

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

There is no reason why a mentoring strategy cannot be replicated in every New Jersey locality where there is a two- or four-year college, as well as in every other state, while also committing to building 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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