By Brenna R. Kelly
Most teachers aren’t trained to spot a mental health issue that may be plaguing one of their students – and if they did suspect a problem, they might not know how to get the child help.
But thanks to an $8.1 million federal grant, teachers and school personnel across the state will learn how to identity mental health issues and get students the help they need.
The Kentucky Department of Education was one of 120 state and local education agencies to be awarded an Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education (AWARE) grant last fall. In addition to providing training on how to detect students’ mental health needs, the grant will also improve the coordination of youth mental health services across the state.
“This will help us create safer and more respectful learning environments while supporting the mental health of our students,” said Gretta Hylton, executive staff advisor in KDE’s Office of Next Generation Learners.
It’s estimated that up to one out of five children living in the U.S. experience a mental disorder in a given year, according a report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.
Kentucky AWARE will be piloted in Jefferson County, Fayette County and Pulaski County schools and will then move statewide, Hylton said.
In the pilot counties, school personnel, first responders, parents and anyone who interacts with youth will be offered Youth Mental Health First Aid training.
“It’s not teaching you to go out and be a full-time social worker,” Hylton said. The intent is if you see a reason to be alarmed in a child you are going to know how to connect them with some resources.”
The pilot districts were chosen in part because they already have some mental health services and have robust Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) programs.
“They had to be high need and they had to be ready,” Hylton said, “and they had to be willing to let us come in and drive this integration and coordination plan.”
For example, Pulaski County already connects students with mental health counseling, said Lori Price, the district’s coordinator of student and family support services. The district has agreements with 11 agencies to provide services in the district’s 12 schools.
“Where we have lacked, and this is where the Kentucky AWARE grant will help us, is we don’t all speak the same language,” Price said. “When we are trained, we will all be communicating in the same way. It will help us be able to more quickly identify issues to get students what they need.”
Three people from each of the pilot districts and six KDE personnel were trained in how to teach Youth Mental First Aid courses last month. Those trainers will now begin teaching the eight-hour course in their respective counties or departments.
“We hope to scale up regionally and then even have it at some statewide conferences,” Hylton said. “It won’t stay localized.”
At the end of the five-year grant, more than 10,000 people across the state are expected to be trained to identity mental health issues in students, Hylton said.
In addition to the training, there will be social media marketing campaigns and community events such as mental health awareness nights in the pilot districts. Those efforts will eventually spread throughout the state, she said.
There will also be training on trauma-informed care in each of the pilot districts and the Center on Trauma and Children at the University of Kentucky will hold two training sessions, she said.
In addition to KDE, AWARE grants were awarded to Jefferson County, Fayette County, Bullitt County, Corbin Independent, Covington Independent and Henderson County school districts and to the Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services.
“We do have to work very closely with them to make sure we don’t duplicate efforts,” Hylton said, “especially the local districts that are also in the Kentucky AWARE.”
The grants, which are being administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are part of President Barack Obama’s Now Is the Time initiative to decrease gun violence, increase access to mental health services and increase school safety.
As part of the KDE grant, a statewide management team was formed to coordinate state and local policies and resources. The team is made up of over 30 participants from children’s advocacy organizations across the state.
“Almost anyone you can think of that is in a child-serving agency at the state level was in attendance and eager to participate,” Hylton said. A project coordinator will also be hired to oversee the implementation of the grant, she said.
By the end of the five-year grant, Hylton said she believes that that both KDE and local districts will be in a better position to get students the mental health help that they need.
“More people will be able to recognize and respond appropriately to mental health issues in children,” she said, “and will know how to connect those individuals with services in their hometown.”