Thousands of K-12 school personnel will be trained on how to recognize and refer students with emotional or mental health difficulties thanks to a $5.5-million grant awarded to USF St. Petersburg’s College of Education.
The program, known as the Youth Mental Health Awareness Training (YMHAT) Administration Project, was established in 2018 with an initial $2.2-million grant. The funding was part of a larger legislative initiative developed from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, passed in the wake of the tragic school shooting in south Florida.
The additional $5.5-million grant will allow USF St. Petersburg, under agreement with the Florida Department of Education, to continue administering and funding training to schools around the state. The training helps all school employees – from principals to custodians – identify and understand the signs of emotional distress, mental health difficulties and substance abuse disorders.
“It’s giving them the skills to recognize what is typical behavior and what’s not so typical,” said Jordan Knab, principal investigator for USF St. Petersburg’s College of Education.
The training is administered in several different ways. First, there is a “train the trainer” component that prepares 16 people at a time to serve as trainers within their own school district. There is also supplemental training through an online module.
Knab likened the training to “mental health first aid,” giving school personnel the information necessary to take immediate action to assist students or refer a student so they can be connected with a trained professional and receive necessary care.
“We want to prevent students or anyone else from getting to that point where their mental health issues escalate,” he said.
Recognizing the signs of mental distress can be difficult. Although a lot of attention is focused on preventing possible violence, most students experiencing mental health issues often become quieter and more withdrawn.
That’s one of the reasons the training includes all school personnel, including people who work in the lunchroom and bus drivers. Students may behave differently depending on whether they are inside or outside the classroom.
“In many instances, those school employees have different interactions and develop different connections with students,” Knab added.
Training has been conducted throughout the state, including sessions in Tallahassee, Lee County, Hillsborough County, Orlando and at USF St. Petersburg. Due to staff turnover at the schools and evolving best practices, there will be a constant need for updated training.
The College of Education was selected to set up the program largely due to its experience with establishing a statewide network for student mental health services. The Multiagency Service Network for Students with Severe Emotional Disturbance Administration Project (SEDNET), based at USF St. Petersburg, brings together key stakeholders throughout Florida to create a system of care for students with emotional or behavioral challenges.
Brenda L. Walker, Associate Dean of the College of Education at USFSP, said she’s proud of the hard work that has gone into creating the training program. The grant underscores the university’s ongoing commitment to helping students, teachers and school personnel throughout the state, she added.
“Recognizing the warning signs for mental health distress is a vital part of keeping our schools safe and our students healthy,” said Walker. “We’re pleased to continue to raise awareness and understanding on this important issue.”