Two tragedies in a small, tight-knight school district shook the community to its core. Now the school system has partnered with Atrium Health to train its staff to make sure they can identify signs of a student in need of mental health help.

News, Child Health | 3 months ago

Tragedy Sparks School System’s Response to Mental Health Issue

Two tragedies in a small, tight-knit school district shook the community to its core. Now the school system has partnered with Atrium Health to train its staff to make sure they can identify signs of a student in need of mental health help.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that they’ve likely seen a huge shift in the behavior of their students in the past 4-8 years. Trauma. Depression. Anxiety. Chronic stress. Thoughts of self-harm. 

These are regular issues that teachers, counselors, school social workers and administrators have to deal with – on top of their regular duties to educate students – on a daily basis. With half of all mental illness beginning before age 14 and 75 percent by age 24, it’s all too real. When the Lincoln County Schools family suffered their own tragedies – two students, one a sixth grader, and the other a senior in high school, took their own lives – they knew they needed to do something about it. There had to be a better way. A way to spot signs of mental illness. A way to provide staff with the confidence to know what to do in the case of a mental health emergency. The knowledge to connect students with the appropriate resources to get help.

Enter Mental Health First Aid.

Leading by Example

Dr. Rhonda Hager, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for Lincoln County Schools, says the school system has always had an innovative bent to it.

“We want to be on the cutting edge,” Hager said, citing academic proficiency scores that put it among the top school systems in the state.

Although they haven’t been the first school system to adopt Mental Health First Aid – Union County Schools and Mooresville Graded School District have implemented the program and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Stanly County Schools have also offered the classes – Lincoln County Schools’ leadership has really been involved with and a champion of the coursework since they started the training 2015. That’s the year that staff turned to the community relations team at Atrium Health to help facilitate the training.

There was some apprehension at first. There are a lot of faculty, staff and administrators. And the few days that are set aside each year for training are precious commodities. To devote an 8-hour training block to a teacher instructional day takes a commitment from both leaders and staff. To calm some apprehensions, Atrium Health facilitators led two trial classes to demonstrate the value of the coursework and the lasting impact it can have on those who take it. After the this class, the LCS leadership saw the value in the training and began to work with Atrium Health on a plan to implement the training across the system.

After going through the program themselves, leaders knew that MHFA had to be added to their staff’s toolbelt. Next came other administrators, principals, vice principals, school leads, school social workers, counselors, nurses, front office staff and now bus drivers, coaches and athletic directors. The school has trained nearly 200 employees in this time period – working to have an MHFA-trained staff member strategically located within key departments. Teachers are expected to begin training this fall.  

A Bigger Problem or Better Awareness

Talk to Kennan Eaddy, a school counselor, or Amy Tyler, a school social worker, and you’ll be talking to two women who love their schools, love their kids and love their jobs. But their jobs also require them to uncover some significant challenges in the lives of students and their families.

One of these challenges is bullying – instances of which can impact a student’s mental health, physical health, academic performance and their future mental health as an adult. In the past few years, the school system has jumped into action, creating a task force for bullying led by counselors, and, working with parents, coming up with several action plans to help bring awareness and solutions to the issue.

The goal of Mental Health First Aid is be able to identify and help someone developing a mental health challenge or who is in a mental health crisis. In fact, they have a mnemonic device remembering the five-step action plan, ALGEE:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen non-judgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Much of the daylong training is spent on interactive training and role-playing scenarios. These exercises help bring realistic crises and situations to life and give participants a chance to test their new skills. Mental Health First Aid instructors remind staff that it’s important for adults in the school to have the skills to notice when a student might be developing a mental health challenge and to know what do with that information.

“It’s important for people in the school system to understand what (mental health issues) they’re looking for. It’s tough for parents. Sometimes, we see the child more than the parents,” Tyler said.

Dr. Hager said the training sessions are only as good as the facilitators that lead them and praised the work of Lynn Hennighausen, Jordan Frye and Jeff Ross, members of Atrium Health’s community relations team who helped lead the training.

“It’s been a great relationship,” Dr. Hager said. “It’s the people that deliver the program that makes a difference – those relationships, meeting the needs of the kids.”

Putting the Plan in Action

Those who have gone through the training, like Eaddy and Tyler, feel like the information they’ve gleaned from the event, has stuck with them. The foundational work has given them the confidence to talk to parents and other educators about the issues and do what they can to help find the root causes of mental health issues, and resources that can help provide services and treatment.

“A lot of research has been done and it shows that more than 90 percent of people who take the class feel prepared to help someone who might be developing a mental health challenge or who is in a crisis – 6 months, and even 12 months after taking a class,” Hennighausen said.

They’ve also not only been able to help parents and educators understand complicated mental health issues, but through a program called I.C. Hope, Lincoln County Schools has been able to provide lessons for students. I.C. Hope is a program that educates students about mental illness and how to take care of their mental health for the K-6 population. The “curriculum uses a book review format combined with classroom discussion and hands-on activities like puppet making to learn about issues such as anger, bullying, grief and stress.” This is an addition to numerous other LCS- and parent-led initiatives to stop bullying.

Other school systems have started to pay attention to the efforts in Lincoln County. And Atrium Health staff are helping to extend Mental Health First Aid into other school systems.

“Seeing the administrators see how mental health affects students from across the board, and having them be aware of it and taking it seriously and having a plan, that has been extremely helpful,” Tyler said “That helps me advocate for students. I don’t have to go into teaching mode for it. I can just advocate for it.”

Learn more about Mental Health First Aid or Register for a Free MHFA Course Near You.