From Lisa: Early Intervention Can Reduce Adverse Outcomes

  • January 17, 2017


The media reports on a daily basis how untreated mental health issues can have devastating consequences for individuals and families. One particularly tragic example is the shooting in Florida that took place a couple of weeks ago. What the media often fails to illustrate is the reality that most people with mental illness are not violent. However, I believe that when these incidents occur it is important to share facts about mental illness and show how recovery and prevention works. One such fact is that mental health issues can frequently be identified very early in life and that early treatment in children to address their behavioral needs can reduce adverse outcomes. Even more so, promoting the social-emotional well-being of ALL children leads to better educational outcomes, a goal DRT works to achieve for students with disabilities. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five youth live with a mental health condition, but less than half of these individuals receive needed services.1 Too often schools, which can play a critical role in identifying and treating mental health conditions, are not adequately prepared to address this issue.1,2 DRT responds to this problem by working with individual students and their families and with school systems in the state to implement a systemic approach to ensure that students receive needed services.
What does that mean? DRT’s approach is to back up the train and intervene when problems first begin. In working with clients, we often hear the story about a child who had “problems” at school, got in trouble with law enforcement, entered the juvenile justice system, and ended up dropping out of school or becoming institutionalized. That child may then become an adult who struggles with employment, securing a place to live, and who may never be able to live independently and contribute to our community. By backing up the train, DRT recognizes that the school is in a unique position to either allow the school to prison pipeline to continue, or to intervene and provide the behavioral health services necessary for that student to be successful in school and in life.

The other reality that we encounter in our advocacy work is that when parents spot concerning behavior and report it to the school to seek help, they are often not met with the needed support.

I can affirm that statement as a disability rights advocate and as a parent. I have a wonderful 21-year-old son who has bipolar disorder. I rarely speak about my son in a public forum, but sharing a bit of our story is part of being an advocate.  At age nine his teacher saw symptoms that I did not. She saw signs of anxiety and depression that I, as his mother and a social worker, was too close to see myself. For my son early intervention made a huge difference. Beginning therapy and treatment at a young age has allowed him to grow into a successful adult. 

Despite my background, I was not looking for the signs of a potential problem, which speaks to the reality of many families who can overlook these signs as “phases.” The other reality that we encounter in our advocacy work is that when parents spot concerning behavior and report it to the school to seek help, they are often not met with the needed support. As you will read in Cathy Brooks’ article on school anxiety, school staff need training on mental health conditions and how to best support these students in school to achieve educational success. 

DRT’s individual and systemic advocacy work is just part of the solution. We are fortunate that there is much synergy and focus on tackling this problem in Tennessee. There are disability advocates, mental health advocates, children’s advocates and families who all want the same thing. We are unified in our objective to ensure the presence of well-trained school personnel who have resources available to serve kids before the train gets too far down the track. It is imperative for those students and for the future impact on our state that we find ways to meet the needs for early intervention. We invite you to read about Cathy’s client, Eric, and join us in our pursuit of quality behavioral health services for students in Tennessee.

--Lisa Primm, DRT Executive Director



1. NAMI Mental Health in Schools. (n.d.).

2. Mental Health In Schools: A Hidden Crisis Affecting Millions Of Students. (n.d.).

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides FREE services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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