Growing up mental-health strong

KAYLA BREEN/STAFF PHOTOAll ages need education about mental illness, says Bonnie Black, director of Employee Assistance Services at Behavioral Health Services North. “If adults don’t know, why should we expect kids to know?”

SARANAC — Elementary school children at Saranac Central are learning about mindfulness — living in the moment.

Another offering is adventure-based learning.

Monthly themes at the Middle School also focus on well-being — the kids absorb lessons on kindness, stress management, perseverance, digital citizenship and more.

In the High School, along with mental-health education in health classes, there are such supports as individual meetings with all students once a year and parent information sessions.

The district has integrated the newly state-mandated mental health education into its curriculum.

“We have this in place at all levels,” Superintendent of Schools Jonathan Parks said.

DRIVEN BY SUICIDES

That mandate was passed in 2015; districts around the state are at various stages of implementation.

It says that “a satisfactory program in health education developed in accordance with the needs of pupils in all grades must include instruction in the several dimensions of health, and must include mental health and the relation of physical and mental health; and enhance student understanding, attitudes and behaviors that promote health, well-being and human dignity.”

Assisting school districts in this monumental adjustment to learning is the New York Mental Health Association’s School Mental Health and Training Resource Center, which was established last year.

Staff there is helping educators develop sample lesson plans and conducts training sessions at schools.

“The number of youth suicides in our state and across the country is driving this addition to the curriculum,” said Bonnie Black, director of Employee Assistance Services for Behavioral Health Services North.

MANY FACTORS

North Country school districts have been beefing up mental-health programs for some years now.

Has there been a growing incidence of children with emotional problems? AuSable Valley Central School Superintendent Paul Savage doesn’t think that’s entirely true.

“I would suggest that it is likely a combination of many factors, including earlier and better diagnosis of mental health issues; more awareness and training regarding mental health identification; and an increase in prevention and support type of programs in schools and throughout the region,” he said.

“That being said, there is still an essential need for additional trained child-mental-health professionals, including psychiatrists, especially in the North Country.

“With the increase in awareness and earlier identification, the need continues to grow for even more highly qualified mental health professionals to serve our youth.”

SOS PROGRAM

In Franklin County, the SOS (Signs of Suicide) program has been in place for five years now, according to Citizen Advocates Prevention Specialist Lisa Lawrence-Boyer, long before the new state mandate.

That’s an initiative provided by the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Task Force.

A version of SOS is presented to students in middle and high school in Franklin County districts, she explained, with another for staff and the community.

After the “Friends for Life” video is shown to the kids, Prevention Specialist Tracy Gravell said, they are given confidential response cards that offer the opportunity, if they want, to talk to a counselor.

And the kids do take advantage of it, she said.

“That provides between 20 and 50 referrals a year.”

Parents, Lawrence-Boyer said, are introduced to the program at awareness nights, when they learn how it will be presented to the kids and about signs and symptoms to watch for.

The program fits a multi-faceted approach that experts say is needed to raise social consciousnesses about mental health and suicide.

“Schools need to educate staff, educate students, educate the community,” Black said.

“If adults don’t know, why should we expect kids to know (about mental health)?

“We need to look at the facts, take our head out of the sand.”

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING

Last year, Plattsburgh City School District’s Student Support Services Group began evaluating and revising the district’s Crisis Response Plan.

“That review was prompted, in part, by the new NYSED regulations about behavioral and emotional supports and interventions,” Superintendent of Schools Jay Lebrun said.

“That review allowed the district to align the plan with both the state framework and with American School Counselor Association (ASCA) guidance.

“The updated plan now reflects current, research-validated practices.”

As for curriculum, social-emotional learning, known as SEL, is already taught at each of Plattsburgh’s elementary schools.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, SEL is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”

EMPOWERMENT

The five SEL principals, according to McGraw Hill, are:

Create: Consciously creating a nurturing, caring, and safe environment for students. An example, the McGraw Hill website says, is to “provide multiple ways for students to report, discuss and work through conflicts.”

Integrate: To incorporate SEL skill-building into academic instruction whenever possible. A sample strategy is to design a full classroom unit based on a real-life theme, for example by helping a local group work to increase environmental sustainability.

Communicate: Taking the larger community into account with stress on communicating early and often with all SEL stakeholders.

Instruct: To consider social and emotional learning the same as any other subject area .

“Recognize that time spent on topics such as conflict resolution counts as a ‘teachable moment,’ just as is time spent on academic content,” McGraw Hill says.

Empower: To empower students to take charge of their own social and emotional learning.

Starting next year, Lebrun said, “our district will be screening every single K-12 student for at-risk behaviors (both internalizing and externalizing).

MOBILE CRISIS UNIT

The new state mandate is the next step in the evolution of mental-health support provided through schools.

LeBrun has seen the changes in approach over the years, as well as a dramatic increase of referrals for students to the University of Vermont Health Network, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital Mental Health Unit.

“Most notable in our district is the use of consistent practices and protocols across all buildings,” he said.

“Additionally, partnerships with provider agencies have expanded.”

As do districts around Clinton County, Plattsburgh City Schools has counselors from BHSN on campus.

“This partnership also makes available the BHSN Mobile Crisis Unit to support our student support services staff by conducting assessments prior to a referral to the UVM Health Network Mental Health Unit,” he said.

SUBSTANCE ABUSE

In Franklin County, Lawrence-Boyer and Gravell emphasized the importance of substance abuse prevention from an early age, too.

There are 21 factors that put kids at risk, Lawrence-Boyer said. And the tight-knit link between that risky behavior and mental health is plain to see.

“Seventeen (factors),” she said, “relate to anxiety and depression.”

Prevention specialists focused on substance abuse prevention work in Franklin County school districts, including three in Malone and one each in St. Regis Falls, Chateaugay, Brushton and Tupper Lake, with evidence-based programming such as Too Good for Drugs, which serves grades 1 through 5.

For grades 6 through 12, there are Students Against Destructive Decisions groups, which give the kids a role in promoting health and well-being, too.

And it works, Lawrence-Boyer said.

“Students can raise awareness better with their own peers.”

Email Suzanne Moore:

smoore@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: @editorSuzanne