An icebreaker activity left educators startled during the Building a Coalition to Improve Mental Health Services for Students panel at the AASA national conference in New Orleans on Saturday morning.
Delivering the first stunner was Jonathan Costa, assistant executive director of EdAdvance in Litchfield, Conn. He read aloud statistics of children with mental health issues. “Teens diagnosed with some observable psychological disorder, 46.3 percent,” Costa said. The room filled with gasps.
Superintendent Judith Palmer, who leads Northwestern Regional School District No. 7 in Winsted, Conn., described how the Northwestern Connecticut Youth and Adolescent Mental Health Coalition was formed. It came after a young man’s unexpected mental breakdown.
“One of our seniors went into the band room, huddled in a corner and began rocking,” Palmer said. “We had no idea what to do.”
The school sent him to the hospital where medical staff diagnosed the boy with multiple personality disorder. Two weeks after returning to school, the boy lit a vacant house on fire, the superintendent said.
“He went back into treatment, and missed an awful lot of things his senior year. …. He ended up committing suicide,” Palmer said. “At that time, we knew we had to do something.”
The superintendent wanted to add more school counselors to the school staff. Working with Richard Carmelich, director of finance and operations of her regional district, Palmer applied for outside grants and money from the school board to get more counselors, but their pursuits failed. However, this did not stop the administrators team from pursuing ways to help students in need.
Carmelich expressed to Palmer: “Whether we get this grant or not, we have to figure out how to connect our students and families to the resources that are out there,” she said. “This was when mental health coalition came together.”
The group worked with Costa of EdAdvance, a regional education service center based in Litchfield, Conn., to build the inter-agency coalition, Carmelich said.
The organizers consulted with a social worker who gave Carmelich and Palmer a list of mental health service providers. The list of community resources grew as they connected with more services. “It was a grassroots initiative,” Carmelich said.
In 2014, the educators said they scheduled a meeting with service providers, mayors, legislators and insurance companies to discuss the group’s objectives. Carmelich said the coalition’s goals included: banding together to advocate for legislation, networking with health providers and learning more about best practices.
The coalition members admitted they wanted to serve only their district.
“We are in a pretty rural part of Connecticut. Many of the resources went to the city,” Carmelich said. “We wanted to create a coalition that would ensure that we would have a voice on our capitol, for our neck of the woods.”
Costa said EdAvance, as well as the other service providers, were focused on informing families about mental health services in the region. “One of the contributions that we can make as a regional center is that this is about all of us working together in the best interests of children.” he said.
In March 2015, educators said they applied for the Project AWARE Grant. The unit received the grant in September, awarding the group $125,000 for the next three years. Palmer said the grant supports seven individuals to attend Youth Mental Health and First Aid training in Indianapolis.
Now, Palmer said YMFA has been beneficial to both students and teachers in her district. “It has become safe for (the staff) now, to say, ‘Judy please help me.’ It allows us to wrap ourselves around those staff members,” Palmer said. “It is now safe for people to come and talk about it, and I am happy to help.”
(By Prinsey Walker, a sophomore mass communications major at Xavier University)