RE: [xmca] RE: mental health

From: Peter Smagorinsky <smago who-is-at>
Date: Fri Jul 11 2008 - 12:24:52 PDT

Achilles asks:
Can we really creat semiotical means to produce better mental health to people? Or this kind of a goal is a mistake like possible Vygotsky´s or perhaps some Vygotsky's followers' mistakes about 'social engeneering'?

I would say YES to the first question. I'll take a shortcut and paste something in below from a book I've coauthored about The Discourse of Character Education (Erlbaum, 2005, with Joel Taxel). It draws on the dissertation of Leslie Cook, who looked at young women with depressive disorders and the mediational means they use to make sense of their lives. My apologies for the length of the following excerpt.

Mental Health and Character Education
        We have briefly expressed our concern that the issue of mental health is virtually absent from discussions about character education. Yet many students who come to school with a mental health problems are treated as discipline problems of the sort measured as indexes of low character in the proposals we have studied. We believe that it is important for any character education initiative to recognize and account for mental health in its conception of good character, both for those with nonnormative makeups and those with whom they interact.
        Mental health is the elephant in the character education closet. The World Health Organization (2001) reports that about 7.5 million children in the U. S.—12% of all children under 18—have mental disorders, nearly half of which lead to serious disability. Jamison (1997) found that 20% of high school students had seriously considered committing suicide during the year prior to his study, with most having drawn up a suicide plan; suicide is the #3 cause of death of teenagers between 15 and 19 years of age, often following from a depressive disorder. Yet most parents and teachers feel that mental health issues are poorly addressed in schools (Dowling & Pound, 1994; Rappaport & Carolla, 1999), many teachers have little understanding of how to recognize or respond to students with mental health problems (Madison, 1996), and only recently has mental health been identified as a reason to develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for students.
        These widespread misunderstandings have resulted in many such students being regarded as troublesome or lacking character in schools. Yet, as reporter Anne Imse (1999) wrote following the Columbine school shooting tragedy,
Even teens as dangerously troubled as Eric Harris stand a good chance of slipping through the cracks in Jefferson County and across Colorado, failing to get badly needed mental health care. There are serious roadblocks to getting treatment for sick kids [including]
• State prohibitions against law enforcement agencies telling schools about a problem kid unless there's a conviction;
• Schools worrying about being saddled with psychiatric bills if they recommend treatment, or even being sued;
• Not enough money earmarked for counselors and counseling for the state's youth.
So, even though Jefferson County school officials have become more sensitive to kids' mental states . . . they remain hamstrung about arranging treatment. "We have no place to go with them," said Clark Bencomo, a counselor at Green Mountain High School. "All we can do is suspend or expel." "We are oftentimes reduced to putting a kid in a place where they're safe, but it's not the right program," added Kay Cessna, intervention services director for Jefferson County schools. "There are not enough places." [One parent of a child with disabilities complained], "They don't have the time, the manpower, and they don't get it." (
Cook (2004) finds this problem occurring in other states as well, reporting that students with mental health problems are often put in special education programs or disciplined when they act out, either as a consequence of their makeup (e.g., a child with Tourette’s syndrome’s involuntary profanity) or in response to the taunting they face from their peers.
        Yet a mental health professional would surely argue that the problem is not a lack of character and the solution is not to punish students with mental health problems. Rather, a broader understanding of mental health among students and faculty—the sort of attention to climate we found in the states from the Upper Midwest—would contribute to a more sympathetic and less punitive environment for such students in school. Indeed, Damasio (1994) argues in his somatic-marker theory against the classic Cartesian mind/body binary, instead positing that brain and body are integrally related not just to one another but to the environment. A change in the environment, he finds, may contribute to changes in how a person processes new information (cf. Luria, 1979; Pert, 1997); that is, in response to developments in the surroundings, the brain will encode perceptions in new kinds of ways.
Conceivably, then, changes in school climate can contribute to the emotional well-being of students whose mental makeup falls outside the normal range. The therapy for such students is still widely debated. While medication and counseling have benefited many with nonnormative makeups in their relationships with others, the medical model has been criticized because it assumes that a normative mental state is best for all. This criticism frequently comes up in debates about whether medications for Attention Deficit Disorder are prescribed too often for any students who have difficulty focusing in school. Some argue that prescribing such medications is designed more to increase the comfort levels of those around such students than to help those students themselves.
The jury is still out concerning the question of whether people with such diagnoses are sick and in need of medicine. Cook (2004) argues that relying simply on medication and counseling is inadequate; that a broader environmental change that enables an understanding and tolerance of difference, and gives young people tools for managing their difference, is essential to helping young people construct positive lives for themselves and in turn contribute to a more humane society. Taking a punitive approach to difference, she argues, is regressive and only makes life more fragile for those characterized as different and more emotionally and cognitively unhealthy for those who surround them.

xmca mailing list
Received on Fri Jul 11 12:26 PDT 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Fri Aug 01 2008 - 00:30:07 PDT