Earlier the better: New research advocates for earlier ID’ing of students with mental illness risk factors

Warning signs for mental illness and substance abuse can appear as early as a child’s preschool years, and the impact of missing these red flags can be grave as the child becomes an adolescent, including expulsion from school and entanglement with the juvenile justice system. 

The Washington Post reported this week on a new report by Andrea M. Spencer, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education at Pace University and an educational consultant to the Connecticut non-profit the Center for Children’s Advocacy.

Her research focused on children in Connecticut and is based on data from 102 case studies of students 12- to 16-years-old who were either struggling in school or had been involved in the legal system.  

Her findings are sobering:

  • More than 70 percent of students diagnosed with mental illness and behavioral problems by middle school displayed warning signs by the second grade.
  • Nearly 25 percent showed warning signs before kindergarten; these include developmental and health issues, adverse social factors and trauma exposure
  • 25 percent of the children included in the case studies had documented traumatic events in their records

With one in five children in Connecticut experiencing mental illness or struggling with substance abuse, more than half of those children not receiving treatment and many not being identified until middle school, Spencer is advocating for earlier and improved screening and identification of risk factors.

She also recommends improving the referral system to early intervention services, enhancing collaboration between service providers and improving community and parent education about risk factors and available resources.

Read the report: “Blind Spot: The Impact of Missed Early Warning Signs on Children’s Mental Health”