Of the many professional reasons I decided to open up my own private practice, people are most surprised when I tell them this reason:
Students with mental health and substance use diagnoses are largely under-served in our schools… and I happen to enjoy helping parents learn how to advocate for their students.
I don’t think it is any surprise to parents and educators that kids and teens with mental health and substance use diagnoses are under-served… however, there aren’t a lot of mental health professionals in the area who are versed in educational policies (and laws)… and there are even fewer who actually will say they enjoy this element of their job.
Here’s the deal: after earning my Master’s Degree in Clinical Professional Psychology, I furthered my education in Educational Psychology. From 2004 until 2016, I spent a majority of my time either pushing in to schools as a therapist, working in the schools as part of a specialized team for students with Substance Use Disorder, or advocating for students with disabilities who needed more services. From 2016 until I opened my practice recently, I have missed being involved in the process of getting students what they not only need, but what they are entitled to receiving. While I’ve gone to bat for a few people during the last couple years in this domain, I haven’t reached the number of parents who I know can benefit from this…
What I missed even more: watching my clients’ lives turn around in a positive direction once they received proper supports at school for their mental health and substance use diagnoses…
So… what do I want you to gain from reading this (you clicked on this for a reason…perhaps you are a parent with a student who needs services… perhaps you are an educator with a couple students you’re hoping to help… perhaps you work for a school district who is underfunded and you don’t know how to advocate for your students’ needs without the repercussions that come with “costing the district money”).
If a student’s diagnosis impedes his ability to benefit from traditional school settings and supports (in a public school, specifically), he will qualify for a service plan.
More often than not, unless another diagnosis (learning disability, ADHD, medical diagnosis) qualifies for an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), students with mental health and substance use diagnoses who need services would receive those accommodations by means of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (this is called a 504 plan).
While working with students and families in the schools, the most frequent barricades we faced were:
1.) School staff did not know that mental health and substance use diagnoses were protected under the Section 504.
2.) Schools reported they didn’t have enough money to provide such supports.
So, what can you do if you run into those barricades for your student? Reach out to someone like me (a professional who is well versed in educational policy or an educational advocate that might have had their own experience with children of their own… other parents are often an incredible resource). Remind yourself that a district’s lack of funding (which is a sad reality for many schools in the State of Illinois) does not disqualify that district from having to meet your student’s educational needs.
If you’re thinking of advocating for your student, I encourage you to do the following:
1.) Compile a list of how his diagnosis impedes his ability to profit from school without supports. Keep in mind, your student may seem absolutely adaptive at school, but when things like anxiety and depression are a factor, you might notice that they are utterly exhausted when they get home… and so homework and studying are seemingly impossible. Your student’s school staff might think they’re simply being lazy… but you and your student know that the lack of energy is a function of the symptoms of his diagnosis.
2.) Ask your student what types of accommodations he might find most helpful (i.e. a study hall, a note-taker, school counselor, extra time, advance notice on larger projects, etc…). Bring those ideas to the table.
3.) Contact your school administrators in writing to request a meeting for a 504 (or IEP, depending on which he qualifies for)…
4.) Though it is not a requirement for a 504 (it is for an IEP). bring supporting documents from his physician, counselor, case worker, former teachers, etc… that he does have a documented disorder/disability.
5.) Audio Record your meeting (let them know you are recording) and request a copy of the summary of the meeting. A lot of this is daunting and overwhelming… having it recorded helps you to review what you went over.
6.) Know your rights… and know that you don’t have to agree on the services on the spot. Ask when you are able to get back with the school with your answer as to whether those services are appropriate or not. Review the meeting with someone who has some experience with this and see if anything is missed out.
7.) Don’t hesitate to reach out when you believe changes need to be made to plans that are already in place.
Why did I miss this???? Because I missed how much I saw my clients grow after having proper supports in place at school… it’s incredible how much this can do for kids and teens.
And, I must say, I’m glad to officially be back at it. (Even if some of my most frequented school districts are cringing at the thought of me walking back in… kidding… kind of…)
If you’re in Central Illinois and you have any questions about whether or not I can help your teen, please call me at 309-648-6549.
For more explanation on IEP’s and 504 Plans, the following has some good information: