Serious Emotional Disturbances and Teen Academic Support

When children and teens have a diagnosis that impairs their learning, they are eligible for receiving federal academic support in school. However, according to Federal Law, teens need to meet certain diagnostic criteria. And to be more specific they need to meet the definition for Serious Emotional Disturbance.


Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) is a term that has been created by Congress. In 1992, Congress directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a federal definition of Serious Mental Illness (SMI) in order to assess the prevalence of disorders and the need for mental health services in various states. Along with SMI for adults, the term SED was created for children and teens. Both of these terms are based on the definition provided in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychological Association.


Recently, both definitions have been in the news in the wake of school shootings and violence among teens. When violence occurs, often questions arise whether those teens had a mental illness that warranted extra attention to avoid the violence in the first place.  It’s important to know that violence is an extreme and rare result of having mental illness.


However, when a teen has a mental illness, it can impair learning. Yet, if that mental illness is formally diagnosed and documented, it can be the foundation upon which a teen receives federal academic support. In these cases, a teen must undergo a psychological evaluation. With the results of the evaluation along with a meeting among teachers, social worker, behavioral health specialist, parents, and any other professional involved in the well being of a child, an education plan can be developed.


The education plan is created such that all the needs of the teen are met. For instance, if a teen needs behavioral support, or if he or she needs occupational therapy, those services can be included in his or her Individualized Education Plan (IEP).


It’s clear that a mental illness can get in the way of learning. According to the National Institute of Mental Illness (NAMI), over 60 percent of young adults with a serious mental illness are unable to complete high school, lowering their chances for occupational success. They are also more prone to use substances. Adolescents who have a psychological illness, especially those without a diagnosis, are often looking for relief from challenging emotions or for a way to better function in school, at home, or at work. As a result, they use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism or as a way to self-medicate.


In addition to having a mental illness, tends to experience many stressors. The stage of life they are in demands psychological tasks such as reaching for their independence, uncovering their uniqueness, and the role they will play in life. At the same time, there is also the presence of other confused teenagers, family conflicts, and the lingering tendency to hang onto their childhood, not to mention drugs, the pressure of new romantic relationships, extracurricular activities, and maintaining good grades! Plus, they must be thinking about possibly moving away from home, getting into college, and perhaps even what type of career they’re after.


On top of all of this there other stressful factors to consider that are the result of the last 10 years – cyber bullying, school shootings, and other types of school violence. No wonder teens have a hard time at school and with their assignments – the amount of stress can be overwhelming!


There is a clear relationship between teen academic issues and the presence of mental illness. Having recognized the nearly insurmountable challenge they face, community, state, and federal agencies are lending their support in schools and in communities throughout the country. Teens don’t have to face the challenge alone!