Mental Health in Special Education: Comparing the 1970s to Today

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  “Mental health disorders are the most common health issues faced by our nation’s school-aged children. One in five children suffers from a mental health or learning disorder, and 80% of chronic mental disorders begin in childhood,” states Christina Samuels, a news article writer for Education Weekly. As told by this statistic, mental illness is a huge and common problem within children and students today. Despite this problem, mental health needs and disabilities were not always recognized in schools from the start of federal special education laws. Mental health was viewed as a taboo and there was an extreme stigma surrounding such needs. It was viewed as not nearly as important as physical health is. Overtime accommodations based on mental health needs have become much more prevalent and are provided to the students that need help more and more. Today, there is a lot more aid and attention surrounding mental health needs, and students are better accommodated in schools than from the start of federal special education laws.

In the mid-1970s, many federal special education laws were originally created. These laws were meant to help and accommodate students in school with special needs and disabilities. The main focus of these laws was surrounding students who had what was referred to as “mental retardation” at the time, more commonly known today as autism. It was important that autism was talked about and students with autism were receiving the help they needed, but mental health was another very important topic that was left unaddressed. In the original documentation of these laws, the words “mental health” do not appear. In Peter Wright’s article, “The History of Special Education Law,” Wright discusses The Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Wright states that, “Congress intended that all children with disabilities would ‘have a right to education, and to establish a process by which State and local educational agencies may be held accountable for providing educational services for all handicapped children.’’’ This law discusses the need for help when it comes to handicapped children, but never specifically mentions mental health. Handicapped can refer to both physical and mental disabilities, yet mental health needs were not being accommodated for at the time. When it comes to mental health, students deserve to have the help they need and a way to deal with their disabilities in school. Despite this need, students weren’t getting the help they needed in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, there was a much bigger stigma surrounding mental health than there is today. In an article written by Wulf Rossler titled, “The Stigma of Mental Health,” Rossler talks about the rise of this stigma surrounding mental health. He discusses the negative impacts of this stigma and how it has affected the way people view mental health. He writes, “A scientific concept on the stigma of mental disorders was first developed in the middle of the 20th century, first theoretically and eventually empirically in the 1970s.” This explains when the stigma was adopted. The time period it comes from was a time period where mental health was not addressed in schools. He continues to say, “Overall, the 1960s and 1970s were full of an anti‐psychiatry attitude, blaming psychiatry for being repressive, coercive and more damaging than helpful to patients.” This portrays the idea that mental health wasn’t important and something that shouldn’t be discussed back in the 1970s. Rossler talks about the way mental health is portrayed negatively in the media, for example the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was released in 1975. This movie negatively represents people with mental health disorders as well as negatively portraying a psychiatric ward. Because of the negative portrayal of mental health in this movie as well as other forms of media, mental health is viewed as less important than it is, and not something that should be and needs to be helped. Also around the time of the 1970s, mental health treatment was being reformed, and the government was working on the improvement and quality of mental health hospitals and psychiatric wards. Because mental health was already not being treated well and mental health institutions didn’t have the best conditions, mental health was viewed as even less important in schools.

Another federal law from the 1970s for special education was The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, more commonly referred to as IDEA. IDEA was most recently amended in 2004 according to The Everyday Guide to Special Education Law, by Randy Chapman. One of the key principles of IDEA is FAPE. FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. According to IDEA, every student with a disability has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, despite what accommodations they may need. Students are to be provided with supports that directly cater to the students specific and personal needs, and helps them towards their education and future. That being said, it is important that any need is taken care of. However, that was not the case when it came to mental health. Another key principle of IDEA is an appropriate evaluation. According to IDEA evaluation of students must be relevant and timely. This law is all about students receiving fair and appropriate accommodations depending on their disability, yet at the time this law was created in the 1970s, students with mental health needs were still denied the help they needed. Students with mental health needs were not properly accommodated, leaving them struggling academically in school.

As the Association for Children with Mental Health states, “Many estimates show that even though mental illness affects so many of our kids aged 6-17 at least one-half and many estimate as many as 80% of them do not receive the mental health care they need.” This statistic emphasizes the lack of support for students with mental health needs, despite the extreme need. Diseases like anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disease can negatively affect students abilities to complete work, go to class, take tests, pay attention in class and participate in class. These aspects of school usually count majorly towards grades and grade point averages, and are important when trying to grasp a full understanding of lessons and what is being taught. This leaves students who struggle with mental health related issues and disabilities with grades that don’t properly reflect their abilities and intelligence when it comes to school work, as well as potentially hindering them from being able to learn as much as other students. The Association for Children’s Mental Health states, “mental Health Disorders can affect classroom learning and social interactions, both of which are critical to the success of students.” This again portrays the importance of mental health when it comes to an effective education and this is now more recognized in schools. The negative effects mental health disorders can have on students are more discussed openly and helped today than in the past.

In terms of mental health when it comes to special education federal laws, mental health needs technically fall under the section 504 of the Rehabilitation Acts of 1973. Randy Chapman’s The Everyday Guide to Special Education Law states, “A person has a disability under section 504 if the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the individual’s major life activities” (page 341). This book was published in 2008 and directly mentions “mental impairment,” something that was not mentioned in the documents from the 1970s. Since this time, mental health has been addressed way more in schools, and it has become possible for students to receive accommodations based on these needs. The Everyday Guide to Special Education Law continues to say, “A student with mental illness may need a modified class schedule to allow time for regular counseling or therapy” (page 342). This book provides information about what accommodations students with mental health illness’ can receive and how they can go about getting them. Ultimately, there has been an extremely positive and successful change over time in regards to students getting accommodations based on mental health needs from the 1970s to today.

These federal laws of the 1970s were created in the hopes of helping students with physical disabilities and mental retardation, but did not seem to mention students who suffered with mental disabilities. Since this time, mental health is addressed way more in schools, and students can get accommodations based on these needs. When comparing the 1970s to today, it is clear there has been a vast improvement with how schools treat and accommodate students with mental health disabilities.


Works Cited

Chapman, Randy. “The Everyday Guide to Special Education Law: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers and Other Professionals / Edition 2.” Barnes & Noble,


Rössler, Wulf. Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2016,


Samuels, Christina. “School Resources for Supporting Child Mental Health.” Education Week – On Special Education, 13 July 2016,


Wight, Pete. “The History of Special Education Law – Wrightslaw.” The Blame Game: Are School and Learning Problems the Kids’ Fault? – Wrightslaw, 2010,


Analyzing “Most Likely to Succeed”

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Most Likely to Succeed is a documentary about the different ways people learn and how students can learn without standardized testing. An example of different learning styles is Larry Rosenstock, a law school dropout. He explains that he is a visual learner and uses drawings to study rather than text, (Most Likely to Succeed, 15:57).

An influential scene in the Most Likely to Succeed video is when the High Tech High schools is explained. High Tech High is a high school in San Diego that doesn’t have standardized testing. The school hires teachers with a one year contract and there are no state standards, meaning the teachers can teach however and whatever they like. This scene matters because it is portraying the way students can learn without tests. Not everyone is a good test taker and there are other ways for students to learn. The classes are very student centered in that the students sit facing each other and the conversations are student dominated. The camera shows the way classrooms are set up by panning across the classrooms.

In Welner’s essay “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment,” Welner discusses the “twelve different approaches that charter schools use to structure their student enrollment,” (Welner, p. 2). Welner would approve the approach that the High Tech High School takes when admitting students. Werner writes, “it’s particularly problematic when children are denied opportunities based on special needs status or English learner status – or when the poorest children in a community are pushed aside,” (Welner, p. 5). This is not the case at High Tech High. The school takes students by a lottery, and 50% of the students come from low income families. There are no tests needed to be taken to go to this school, as described in the fourth approach to charter school enrollment.

This is a screenshot from “Most Likely to Succeed” (18:54). It shows the way a teacher has set up a classroom in a socratic seminar formation. This arrangement displays a student centered classroom.

Works Cited

Welner, K. G. (April 2013). The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment. Teachers College Record. [online], ID Number: 17104.

Whitely, Greg, director. Most Likely to Succeed. 2015.