As many schools are looking for ways to beef up security measures after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, some are focusing on mental health as a part of their efforts. Miami-Dade, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. is taking this approach by providing mental health training to school teachers and staff. The new training is based on a program from the American Psychiatric Foundation, and it will be offered to teachers, cafeteria workers and janitors at middle and high schools across the county.
Typical or Troubled?
The program from the American Psychiatric Foundation, titled, “Typical or Troubled?” is designed to help those who work with teens recognize the symptoms of mental illness. According to the foundation, approximately one in five children has a mental health disorder, and about half of those have what would be considered a serious disorder. In addition, the foundation emphasizes that 90 percent of individuals diagnosed with a mental health disorder see the early signs of that condition during adolescence.
The statistics suggest that early detection of mental health disorders during the teen years could result in an improved prognosis and treatment program for many mental health patients. The American Psychiatric Foundation states that early detection of mental health disorders results in more effective treatment options, particularly for teens. Unfortunately, when mental health disorders are not diagnosed and treated early on, the symptoms can become worse over time. Symptoms may impact a student’s ability to perform well in school and can have a negative effect on his social and emotional wellbeing.
Symptoms of Mental Illness
Because of the importance placed on early diagnosis and treatment, the American Psychiatric Foundation urges those in regular contact with this age group, including teachers and school employees, to learn to recognize the warning signs of mental illness. Those signs might include:
- Significant changes in eating or sleeping
- Acting out sexually, or through substance abuse
- Angry outbursts or threats of violence
- Inability to deal with daily activities or problems
- Significant changes in academic performance
- Bizarre behavior or thoughts
It is important to note that a single occurrence of any of the changes listed above does not necessarily indicate a mental illness. However, if the symptoms persist over a period of time, they could be signs of a serious condition.
Steps to Take
The American Psychiatric Foundation also lists steps to take if the symptoms of mental illness are detected. First, those in contact with teens need to be aware of the symptoms so that they can notice them in an individual. Because symptoms typically persist over several weeks, the simple act of observation can go far in the detection process.
If warning signs are detected, it is important for an adult to talk to the teen. In some cases, teens that are experiencing symptoms may not know how to talk about them or ask for help. A compassionate adult who is willing to listen can be the first step to getting a troubled teen the help he needs.
If a school staff member suspects the presence of a mental illness after the first two steps have been followed, the next step is to refer the teen to the proper professional for assistance. Schools need to have referral programs in place that make it easy for school staff to connect the teen with the right individual. It is this process that will be focused on during the training offered to employees of the Miami-Dade school district.
Training Slated to Begin Soon
The Miami Herald reports that training for employees of the Miami-Dade school system is slated to being in March, 2013. Counselors and school psychologists will first receive the appropriate training from mental health professionals versed in the “Typical or Troubled?” program. These staff members will then provide the training for teachers at the high schools and middle schools in the county.
“Teachers have told us they see these problems every day, but they don’t know what to do, or if these are typical behaviors or signs of trouble,” Colleen Reilly, director of Typical or Troubled, told the Miami Herald. “In the wake of Sandy Hook, this needs to be a national curriculum and a part of every school.”
Miami-Dade is a particularly significant area to begin mental health training, according to the report in the Miami Herald. There is a large population of individuals with mental illness in this area, making up about 9.1 percent of the total population. The state’s Baker Act has resulted in a high number of involuntary psychiatric evaluations in the county in recent years as well.
Steve Liefman, a Miami-Dade County judge, brought the Typical or Troubled program to the attention of Schools Superintendent Albert Carvalho. The subject was actually broached by the two just prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy. The program is not intended to be an added burden on teachers, but a tool for them to use to recognize potential problems and get students the proper referrals for assistance.
Miami-Dade may be one of the first school districts in the country to initiate mental health training in public schools, but mental health awareness appears to be on the rise overall. Kaiser Health News reports that mental health programs are now in operation in Florida, Massachusetts and Illinois, as these states have set aside funding for additional mental health care. While Florida is focusing efforts in the schools, the other two states are implementing larger mental health care programs that encompass all of the residents of the state and involve background checks for gun ownership as well.