By LINDA CHION KENNEY
As Mental Health Awareness Month kicks off in May, superintendent Addison Davis addressed in his first blog of the month “record state funding” to enhance mental health services in Hillsborough County public schools.
Amounting to a nearly $8 million appropriation, the funds have been used, in part, to increase the number of therapists at more than 100 schools, Davis said.
Also funded and new this year is the $1.4 million Mobile Response Unit, which aims to help de-escalate emergencies on the spot, including for students with suicidal thoughts or ideations. The unit is in addition to the Students Services Team, comprised of school counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists, which is available during school hours to address emotional wellness issues.
This “multi-tiered system of supports more adequately serves our families and community, especially as we learn more about how the pandemic has impacted our children,” Davis said.
As superintendent, “it has been difficult to watch the tremendous impact COVID-19 has had on all aspects of the educational experience for learners both here and across the nation,” Davis said. It’s imperative, he added, for school officials to redouble their focus on mental health services.
According to Davis, the Mobile Response Unit, in partnership with Gracepoint, a leading provider of behavioral health solutions for almost 70 years in Tampa, involves a team of licensed clinicians dispatched directly to a student in crisis during school hours for immediate evaluation and connection to stabilization services as needed.
Even before the pandemic, based on his reading of CDC findings, teen suicide had been rising at an alarming rate nationwide, up 60 to 70 percent for ages 10 to 24 between the years 2007 and 2018, Davis said.
“We as educators must be armed with tools to not only recognize the signs of suicidal thoughts but to provide immediate support when needed,” Davis said.
Noted, as well, is his district’s association with “Hailey’s Voice of Hope” as a means to provide supplemental support to school-based leaders. In February alone, Davis said, hundreds of principals through the local nonprofit learned about tools to combat teen suicide.
Hailey’s Voice of Hope traces its roots to the untimely death of a 17-year-girl, an only child, who died March 28, 2017, due to mental illness. Founded by her parents, the nonprofit aims “to bring awareness to mental health illness and to break the stigma of mental health issues as portrayed in the movies and on television and as highlighted in the news to promote fear for increased ratings.”
In Hailey’s case, her parents were hesitant to share her mental illness, especially her complete diagnosis, in fear that people would stop searching for their missing child or caring for her safe return. After changing diagnoses over time, Hailey’s latest diagnosis had been schizoaffective bipolar disorder.
Memories and descriptions of Hailey from others, as well as her own poems, shared on the nonprofit’s web site, highlight her “funny, caring, unique and quirky” nature, “despite her long struggle with severe mental illness.” Hailey’s Voice of Hope aims to “help end the stigma of mental illness, so that the people who need help are not afraid to reach out for it.” For more information, call 763-458-9327; email firstname.lastname@example.org/; or visit www.haileysvoice.org/.
Meanwhile, Davis, in his blog, thanked the nonprofit for its efforts to inform school-based leaders, noting, “the information our leaders gained from this training can certainly save lives while preparing everyone, from teachers to administrators, for crisis situations.”
Parents and families are critical “first partners” in detection, Davis said, noting the warning signs of suicide mirror symptoms of depression. Signs to look for include losing interest in activities, feeling like a burden, neglecting hygiene, substance abuse, increased anxiety, risk-taking, fatigue, obsessing about death and running away.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 450 million people worldwide live with a mental illness, “yet nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental illness never seek treatment.” The ADAA seeks to help people, living with anxiety, depression and co-occurring disorders, and their loved ones find treatment, support and resources. Visit www.adaa.org/.
Since 1949, Mental Health America (MHA), along with its affiliates nationwide, have been observing Mental Health Month in May. The MHA finds that “nearly one in five American adults has a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year” and that 46 percent of Americans will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their life, and half of those people will develop conditions by the age of 14.”
Following years of pandemic living, “many people are realizing that stress, isolation and uncertainty have taken a toll on their well-being,” the MHA reports. “This year, the theme of MHA’s Mental Health Month Toolkit is ‘Back to Basics.” The goal is “to provide foundational knowledge about mental health and mental health conditions and information about what people can do if their mental health is a cause for concern.” Visit www.mhanational.org/.
The Hillsborough County school district on its web site provides a list of resources and school contacts. Visit: www.sdhc.k12.fl.us and search for “Mental Health Matters.”