Mental Health & Catholic Schools: Prejudice?

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1 in 5 kids experience mental health conditions. So why are we not addressing the problem in all of our schools? It’s time we take some accountability.


I was raised a catholic. My parents were catholic, their parents were catholic, all my neighbors and most of my friends were catholic. As a youth I was active in the church. I attended church on Sundays, sang in the church children’s choir and completed all my sacraments. It was just the way it was. I wouldn’t say my family was very religious but it definitely gave us some structure in our lives.

Recently a mom called me because her son was having issues in school. He had been diagnosed with mental illness and was struggling. The mother was upset because her son had been suspended from playing basketball for not keeping his grades up and behavior issues. The mother was distraught because she felt having her son play basketball was his saving grace right now. It was an activity where he was fully engaged and social with other kids. He loved the sport and ultimately made him happy. As parents of mentally ill kids we wait for these moments of happiness from our children. It is the difference between falling in a clouded world of sickness and being able to see the sunshine.

It saddened me to think that in this day and age when a child is clearly struggling we are still punishing them instead of building them up. The principal of this school has said to students on numerous occasions that they are on “probation” and if they did not conform to their rules they will not be allowed back the following year. Is that how we discipline our children by threatening them?

I am disgusted that a leader of a religious educational system is teaching others that it is OK to punish and/or expel a child for an ILLNESS!! I was further disgusted to learn that these religious educational leaders are not only threatening kids with expulsion for their ‘behaviors’, but also advising parents to put children on medications to curb their behaviors. I wasn’t aware that when they were receiving their teaching degrees they were also becoming certified as clinician’s with a major in psychotropic medications. (Yes that is sarcasm)

I knew I had to help this mom so I did some research into the catholic school system. I called some of my most amazing advocate friends hoping they could help me, help this child.

I was flabbergasted to learn that since the catholic school system is not federally funded and instead independently funded they could basically do whatever they wanted in their school. Even though this child clearly has a mental health diagnosis they could still treat it as a behavior issue and punish him for it.

Is discrimination not recognized in the catholic school system?? How does a religion that teaches about love and forgiveness not understand about difference and acceptance? What does the catholic school system do with disabled children if they are not willing or apt to help them?

I am not sure how it works in other states but in IL If your child has a disability they need to be tested through their home public school for an IEP. If they need extensive services they will have to attend the public school because catholic schools are not equip to deal with it. This is not only true for the catholic school system but also our charter schools.

So let me get this straight. If your child is in need of specialized services for their education because they have a disability we no longer isolate them in a classroom like years gone past, but it is OK to isolate them in a separate school? Wasn’t the whole idea behind the IDEA act to integrate children into the general population and keep children from being isolated and discriminated against or am I missing something?

If 1 in 5 kids suffer from a mental illness then why are we not addressing the problem in all of our schools? Are we going to continuously make our children someone else’s problem? If every school would take some accountability we wouldn’t we have a better support system for our kids to succeed in education?

About the author
Julie Joyce is a Chicago Police Officer and the mother of an adult son who suffers from bipolar disorder and ADHD. Over the years Julie has been a strong advocate and volunteer with National Alliance for Mental Illness, The Balanced Mind Foundation, and has assisted with the creation and implementation of the Advanced Juvenile Crisis Intervention training (CIT) for Chicago Police officers. She is certified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Hostage Negotiation Team as a Crisis Negotiator, has conducted presentations on mental illness for Attorney General Lisa Madigan's Office and has had the opportunity to speak to legislatures on the need for special education funding. Julie has also conducted educational presentations for DCFS on interventions for kids with mental illness. Along with her son, she was interviewed on NPR, WBEZ, for the “Out of the Shadows” series which focused on juveniles and mental illness. Currently, Julie spends her time raising awareness and advocating for people living with mental illness.
21 Comments
  1. As a teacher who fell into a Catholic school position only because my public school position was eliminated due to a reduction in work force and work as an art teacher/Spanish teacher was scarce at the time, the culture shock was and after eight years remains horrific. I stay not because it is a fantastic job; I have stayed because the trade off of horribly off compensation and elitism has been freedom to expand the curriculum to one that is relevant, college-ready and career-focused, freedom to instill life-long learning/problem-based learning enthusiasm, freedom to forge relationships with other income-raising job opportunities outside of my usual classroom – because the main focus is on scantron testing, accumulating major scholarships and athletics. I would love to say that there is major support for the arts (I am a teaching artist), but it is minimal. As the art teacher, I work with most of the student population. If a student does not fit into the “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet” + Catholic stereotype of a Catholic school student, I wouldn’t recommend sending them to our school. Don’t get me wrong; it is a fantastic high-end academic powerhouse of an educational experience, but IT IS NOT a place for the every day student to earn a well-rounded education, particularly if they, during adolescence, develop a quirk, tick, anxiety, emotional issue, longer than short term illness, run short on cash, live outside of the general area, don’t have a family or long-term friends’ connection. Too many things are brushed under the rug; too many issues are “handled” with parents who should be parenting their children instead of making things easier for them. I realize what I’m saying here is very blanket – this doesn’t apply to every student; some are truly exemplary academically, good kind kids who have worked hard to get to where they are and have earned every bit of respect and congeniality that is extended back to them. But the beauty of connectivity of small communities can also be their downfall in creating closed communities that can be viewed as controlled cults, and that is what’s happening here – where kids are controlled through embarrassment, through bullying, by administration and faculty “protecting” athletics and other programs from being shelved by allowing bullies with money to run a bit amuck. Finding a new job cannot come soon enough.

  2. My granddaughter is Catholic, at least for now. She attended public schools until high school when she started to,attend a high school 35 miles from her home. This girl absolutely never, not one time, was in any trouble in any of her schools to the point of never turning her card over on her desk in elementary school. She is a student ambassador at her high school, an honor student and has been captain of her basketball team since 10th grade. This week she walked up during a quiz to ask the teacher a question. The teacher took her quiz out of her hand and tore it in half three times. The entire honors class watched this. The principal refuses to do anything and the teacher has stated her intent was to embarrass my granddaughter. My granddaughter has begun to stutter badly and is confused as to what she did. Breaks my heart this is what she is learning!

  3. The reason Catholic schools do not accept children with most disabilities is not because they are not caring or they don’t want your children. It’s simply they do not have the resources or funds to properly educate them! The public school systems have specialized departments for that and I know because I have 2 nephews who have autism and ADHD and they are thriving in a public school setting because they are getting the help they need! I have a 5 year old who doesn’t need special services and is in a Catholic school but, if he did, I would put him in a public school where I know he would receive the help he needed! No doubt in my mind and only because I see the differences in my nephews. My son went to a blended preschool where all kids were inclusive so he had kids with multiple handicaps. I saw first hand the special ed and aids work with these children so well and they knew exactly what to do without blinking an eye! because
    The teachers were educated in working with special needs children and it showed They specialize in that field. So my point is, Catholic schools teachers don’t even need a masters degree to teach at a catholic school they get get payed so much less then public school teachers and are not specialized in any special ed fields or any ieps for that matter so ,they don’t know how to handle a child that would need those services at all! but the public school teachers do and are required to have their masters, they have the funding and they have specialized departments and specialist that are equipped to take care of children that need extra help and have the services to do so. At public school they pull out your child in some cases and do a one on one if that’s what they need. They have bouncy chairs if you child can’t sit still, or let them chew gum in class because it calms them down if they have ADHD. I know that the public school needs reforming because they aren’t all great BUT, when it comes to kids with special needs or iep, they are fantastic! You won’t find that in Catholic school.

  4. This is a serious issue in catholic schools. My son has executive functioning ADHD and a couple of other learning issues and has gone to catholic school since he was 3 years old. After 10 years we are finally called it quits. We should have done this years ago. He does great socially but has been bullied continually by the teachers and it is taking a toll. His anxiety is so high about going to school, he usually cries on the way to school (and this is a boy who was always pretty easy going). He usually gets to school and is immediately given some demerit for something petty like not being able to find a pen. He has been singled out and humiliated more times than we can count. It has been ongoing and we now consider it harassment. We’ve talked to the school over and over about this, and they continue to choose to go after him rather than help him, yet preach love and compassion. A big problem with the catholic school is that you have many of the same teachers every year, so if you have one who can’t teach or is a bully, your child can never get away from that teacher. We have lost all trust in our school and are moving all of our children to public school.

    1. We are going through something similar right now with our daughter! She is in 3rd grade and is put in the hallway when she doesn’t complete her work and the teacher wants to check answers with the classmates (so teacher doesn’t have to do it at home, presumably). So my child is loosing the second opportunity to hear the material. When I questioned the teacher and principal about this outdated, isolating, humiliating behavior, they just looked at me and said it was because she isn’t finishing her work. Then we find out that my daughter does not get filled in on any assignments discussed with the class while she is in the hallway, so then she gets homework slips! In the most recent and alarming incident, I signed the homework slip and asked my daughter (and informed the teacher via writing on the hw slip that we don’t know the assgn/have the book) which page number for the assignment and she doesn’t know it because the teacher never communicated it to her. So then the teacher takes my daughter from recess and puts her in a classroom alone on another floor where my daughter completed the assignment and wrote a note of apology to her parents (us), all for something that she had no control over and could have been completely avoided! We never received the apology note (probably because the teacher got nervous?) and we still don’t know what the assignment in question ever was. I just learned that this incident also involved the teacher screaming in my daughter’s face. All this after I called a meeting with the teacher and principal and counselor regarding her failing grades where the conversation was railroaded into her ‘social issues’ and we discussed our plan to assist her. WE ARE DONE! I emailed the principal yesterday informing her we are no longer comfortable with our daughter being there and she will not be returning on Monday. We are so upset by all of this. Our child is being neglected and humiliated and shame on them!

  5. My daughter had long history of anxiety and ADHD. Transferred her into catholic school because felt it was more caring environment. How wrong I was. Daughter had manic reaction due to stress of being bullied and her anxiety medication. School response. Expell her. Bullies on other hand got nothing.

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