Children’s mental health: Raising hope, ending stigma
For the nation, May 10 marks National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. But for those who work daily with Iowa’s school children, every day is all about the mental health of those young people.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in every five youth age 13 to 18 have a mental health condition, and the average delay between the onset of systems and interventions is 10 years.
“The conversation belongs everywhere,” said Barb Anderson, a consultant in the Bureau of Learner Strategies and Supports with the Iowa Department of Education. “We need to speak about the facts, but the message is one of hope. We know that early intervention is important in increasing successful outcomes. They are drawn to being part of the solution. And that’s the invitation.”
The overarching goal is to raise awareness and reduce stigma surrounding mental health, and to deliver the message that in every facet of a student’s life there is a place for a mental health framework. As bedrock as learning the alphabet or the value of good nutrition, so must mental health have a resounding, steady heartbeat throughout a child’s education.
“Often the focus is on suicide prevention, suicide response and crisis intervention, and that is absolutely critical,” Anderson said. “It’s equally important for us to go upstream and think about how to create environments that build resiliency. How do we create safe and caring learning environments for all learners, so that school is a safe place where children feel welcomed? We know when students are connected with caring adults it builds resiliency.”
In response to the tragedy in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the federal government committed to working to increase access to mental health services and increase school safety. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and the U.S. Department of Education collaborated in awarding School Climate Transformation and the Project AWARE grants for State Education Agencies (SEA) and Local Education Agencies (LEA). Inherent in the grants were requirements for schools and communities to work closely together to build comprehensive, multi-tiered systems of supports, breakdown silos and build support and capacity around mental health.
Through the SEA Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) grant, the Iowa Department of Education partners with the Davenport, Sioux City, and Waterloo school districts. Each district has a community, school, and youth leadership team focusing on increasing awareness about mental health, reducing stigma, and increasing access to mental health services in their own district and community. The Sioux City AWARE youth team recently organized a community Mental Wellness Festival on April 28 which drew over 200 people. Student organizer Jordan Crone said, “We want people to know that mental health is an easy thing to talk about and needs to become an easier thing to talk about, and no matter who you are, there’s somebody that can help you and you can always help other people.”
“We want to mirror that on the state level,” Anderson said. “We want to take what we are learning in our districts and share and increase awareness statewide.”
One way that the AWARE grant has increased awareness and support for children and youth mental health is through the evidence-based Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) Trainings. YMHFA is an 8 hour course designed to teach adults who interact with youth to be able to identify signs when a young person may be struggling with a mental health condition and to help them access appropriate supports. As part of the grant, the Iowa Department of Education has worked with the partner districts and state partners to build capacity through developing YMHFA Instructor training cadres. Often viewed as the gold standard for suicide prevention, Instructors must undergo and pass five days of intensive training to become certified. Those Instructors are then certified to facilitate the 8 hour YMHFA trainings. Local education agency instructor teams consist of district and community staff. State YMHFA Instructor teams consist of individuals from the Iowa Department of Education, Iowa Department of Public Health and Human Services, Iowa Department of Public Health, the Department of Human Rights, and the Area Education Agencies.
“I believe everybody wants to do the right thing,” Anderson said. “However, we may not know what to say or know the right thing to do. YMHFA trains adults in a five-step process so that they are better prepared to respond to a youth who is struggling. Training adults to heighten their early identification skills is one way programs support the communities and schools in building a safety net of caring adults.
“Rural schools sometimes ask, ‘We don’t have any resources. What do we do?’ We know that mental health resources are limited. Area education agencies can provide Youth Mental Health First Aid to increase awareness and help adults identify signs and warning signs of a youth who might be struggling. The earlier we can identify, the earlier we can help the student access appropriate supports,” Anderson said.
The Youth Mental Health First Aid training helps send out people that change the culture, reduce barriers, develop skills, and create environments where it’s okay to ask for help.
“If I am struggling with depression, there is no shame in that,” Anderson said. “No more than if I break my arm. Reducing those stigmas allows people to be able to ask for help. If my friend is in the hospital, I go visit them. But if they are receiving psychiatric care, we whisper. We need to be holistic. The benefit of training the adults and increasing their awareness is we can make a difference.”
“We know that early intervention is important, that treatment is effective and that people can get better,” Anderson said. “We also know how adverse childhood experiences impact the developing brain. The good news is that we can help build resiliency in children and youth by the interactions that we have with them, by how kindly we treat them, by knowing their name, by the opportunities we make possible for them.
“We need the whole continuum of support, that universal support and training. We have to know that we all can make a difference.”
Mental health resources and information available on the Department website.