Healthy Schools

A new tool in schools’ mental health tool box

Using Crayola markers set on each round table, small groups of adults from the Greeley area — school outreach workers, Boys and Girls Club staff and foster parents — created poster-sized pictures of what mental health problems look like. Glum stick figures sat under rain clouds, a face contorted from happy to sad and a placid face showed no outward signs of distress.

The pictures were just one of several hands-on activities sprinkled throughout a recent day-long training that aims to teach lay-people the signs of mental health or substance abuse problems in youth, and give them action steps to follow when they spot trouble.

Called Youth Mental Health First Aid, the training originated in Australia and was unveiled in Colorado last year. There is also an adult version of the training, introduced here in 2008, called Mental Health First Aid or MHFA.

Both are gaining momentum in what mental health advocates say is a welcome development in a state saddled with one of the highest suicide rates in the country and more than its fair share of school tragedies, including a deadly shooting at Centennial’s Arapahoe High School in December and a self-immolation at Westminster’s Standley Lake High School in January.

Olga Gonzalez, a community outreach worker who participated in the recent Greeley training, said she regularly fields questions from parents who are worried about their children but don’ t know where to turn. She recounted how one family she’d worked with discovered their son had started using drugs. Another learned that their son had stolen credit card information from a customer while manning the cash register at the family’s store.

“He has money in a savings account, you know. He just did it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what kind of support he needs.”

Youth Mental Health First Aid aims to answer such questions for people who are not mental health professionals but who work closely with young people and their families. The target audience includes lay-people like teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, school nurses and even bus drivers.

Advocates for MHFA say Colorado now has one of the largest contingents of certified instructors—around 230 so far. In addition, it’s among only a handful of states to dedicate public funds to the trainings, with $750,000 appropriated for the program next year.

“We have been at the forefront of this since the beginning,” said Brian Turner, director of Mental Health First Aid Colorado at the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council.

Preparing first responders

The concept behind both versions of MHFA, much like medical first-aid, is to equip first responders with the know-how to address emerging mental health or addiction problems. The youth version is also meant to help distinguish between true mental health issues and the normal mood swings and behavior changes that characterize the life of a teenager.

But the training is hardly a technical lecture. It’s participant-friendly approach is evident in the hands-on activities, the video clips, the anecdote-peppered instruction and even the pile of bite-sized candy on each table. Originally, conceived as a two-day training, it has since changed to a one-day format.

“I think we try to make it accessible in a very non-threatening way,” said Pamela Collins Vaughn, one of the instructors at the Greeley training and quality assurance program director at North Range Behavioral Health.

The five action steps in Youth Mental Health First Aid.
The five action steps in Youth Mental Health First Aid.

Gonzalez, an outreach worker with Community Care Corps, said she learned about the training at a resource fair that she helped coordinate. Her work with families at two local middle schools, as well as in surrounding neighborhoods, made her want to refresh her knowledge on mental health issues.

While Gonzalez and other MHFA participants are certainly not charged with providing treatment, they do receive a customized local resource guide to help them connect youth with professional help when necessary.

In fact, encouraging youth to seek professional help is one of five action steps—condensed in the acronym ALGEE–outlined in the training. The other four include “Assess for suicide/self harm,” “Listen non-judgmentally,” “Give assurance/information,” and “Encourage self-help/other support.”

Turner said having concrete action steps is important because “there’s a big difference between learning about mental health and substance abuse problems and being able to do something about it.”

During the Greeley training, participants were asked to come up with gestures that would convey each of the five action steps. Soon, in an effort to commit the steps to memory, Vaughn and co-trainer Noelle Hause were leading the group in miming actions like non-judgmental head-nodding and reassuring arm-patting.

Reaching out to schools

While Turner said Youth Mental Health First Aid is not yet widely offered by school districts, there is growing interest. Among the districts that have offered it for at least some staff are Douglas County, Aurora, Thompson, and Weld County District 6.

Barb Becker, division director for community programs at the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network, said the one-day format make it a very doable training for educators.

One of the pictures made by participants at a recent Youth Mental Health First Aid training.
One of the pictures made by participants at a recent Youth Mental Health First Aid training.

“It just gives a really good overview,” she said, adding, “It takes away some of the stigma associated with mental health.”

While grants to offer Youth Mental Health First Aid are sometimes available and some mental health centers offer it for free, the price of the training can be a barrier for districts. Costs typically run at least $25 per person and can max out at $50 depending on facility and food costs.

While the new $750,000 in state funding will help with expansion, Turner said advocates are also investigating whether Medicaid reimbursements received by schools can help pay for the trainings. Currently, those reimbursements are used for all kinds of school health and wellness efforts, from paying school nurses to buying P.E. equipment.

If Youth Mental Health First Aid is widely adopted by schools, it will join a growing number of tools used to detect and combat mental health problems in students. Many schools already use suicide prevention curriculums, some are adding instruction on social emotional skills and a few conduct universal mental health screenings among students.

In addition, many schools regularly convene meetings to discuss and create plans for students who are showing signs of mental health or behavioral problem. Others publicize programs like Safe2Tell that allow students, parents or staff to anonymously report bullying or threats of school violence or suicide.

While Becker noted that middle-aged white men, not teens are actually at the highest risk for suicide in Colorado, she said it is still a problem among young people.

In 2010, Colorado had the seventh-highest  youth suicide rate among states and Washington, DC, with 16.7 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people in the 15-24 age group, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, Colorado’s suicide rates are higher in rural and mountain communities than in urban areas. They are also higher among males than females.

Becker said there are a variety of reasons, including biological changes, peer conflicts and dating strife, that adolescents experience depression, which is a leading cause of suicide.

“It’s a hard time in life,” she said.

Ultimately, Turner hopes both versions of Mental Health First Aid will be widely available in all parts of Colorado. They won’t prevent all violent incidents, he said, but they might help. They can also aid in the healing process for communities that have suffered through fires, floods, droughts and other disasters.

student discipline

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shelby County educators list their reactions to students who act out as part of a discipline training on using restorative justice techniques in the classroom.

Taking a cue from Nashville, Memphis school leaders are working to change the way their educators discipline students in an effort to reduce the high rate of suspensions in Shelby County Schools.

This month, about a hundred educators participated in a day-long training session to learn about restorative justice techniques already used in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. The Nashville district, which like Memphis serves mostly minority and low-income students, has seen its suspension rate drop since incorporating the disciplinary approach more broadly in 2014.

“Our goal is to help teachers and administrators see all of the steps they could take before suspension or expulsion. Keeping a student out of the classroom should be a last resort,” said Eric Johnson, the lead trainer and head of youth development for STARS, a Nashville-based nonprofit organization.

The training, conducted in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, is part of the culture shift that’s been building for more than a year as Shelby County Schools seeks to move away from exclusionary practices such as suspensions and expulsions, said Randy McPherson, who oversees school culture and climate for Tennessee’s largest district.

It’s also a far cry from corporal punishment, which the district did away with almost 15 years ago.

“There’s this idea that punishment should be immediate. You act out of line, you get suspended. That’s not what our students need,” McPherson said.

Restorative justice is relational and seeks to foster an environment of caring and respect. In order to get at the root cause behind misbehavior, it begins with educators taking into account the backgrounds and experiences that students bring to school, sometimes including hunger, domestic violence or homelessness.

Memphis is working to catch up with cities like Nashville, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles that already are bringing together students to talk out conflict. Suspensions there are on the decline, although there’s little research to show whether embracing such techniques reduces school violence and benefits students in the long run.


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District leaders acknowledge that changes are needed in Shelby County, where suspension rates are some of the highest in the state and disproportionately skew high for boys of color. During community meetings last fall about how to build better schools, parents also made it clear that the district should prioritize school climate, which includes how students are disciplined.

About two-thirds of district schools have sent some educators to either an in-house session about restorative practices or one co-presented with Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that works with teachers and students in Memphis. McPherson is hopeful to get that number up to 100 percent during summer trainings.

Then comes the even harder part: Getting the schools to buy in to using restorative justice practices every day.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Randy McPherson (middle) oversees school culture and climate for Shelby County Schools.

“The culture-changing process requires investment, energy and professional development,” McPherson said. “I really believe this approach to discipline works if the whole school is buying into it. If you only pay lip service to the idea, it can actually do more harm than good.”

For now, McPherson is overseeing the shift in discipline that previously was shepherded by Heidi Ramirez, who resigned in February as chief of academics. Her replacement has not yet been named.

“We will continue to focus on key strategies for improving school climate, reducing disruptive behaviors that impact academic progress and prepare students for making good choices,” McPherson said.

At this month’s restorative justice training, educators said they liked the direction that Shelby County Schools is heading — but that more trainings will be essential to lowering the district’s suspension rates.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” said Brian Clark, a family engagement specialist at Grandview Middle School. “… We’re realizing we can’t handle every child the same way. We have to hear their stories and struggles and respond.”

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”