USF St. Petersburg is leading a major state initiative to empower K-12 school personnel to recognize and respond to symptoms of emotional and mental distress among students.
The university recently received a $10 million grant from the Florida Department of Education that will be used to help school districts address a variety of mental health related issues.
“The goal really is to recognize mental health and any associated behavioral issues early on and to provide intervention and supports to prevent them from becoming more significant,” said Jordan Knab, principal investigator for USF St. Petersburg’s College of Education. “What we’re trying to do is raise awareness at all levels, remove the stigma of mental health issues, and ensure appropriate interventions and supports are secured as needed.”
The districts are using the funding to set up training around such key issues as sex trafficking, substance use and abuse, suicide prevention and mental health awareness. Some school districts are also creating mental health awareness campaigns to help remove the stigma associated with the subject, including peer-to-peer mental health support clubs.
Knab said they are also encouraging school districts to involve parents and families by creating opportunities for training or establishing mental health support groups for parents of children who have emotional or behavioral disabilities.
“We want to help families recognize the symptoms of mental illness and related mental health issues and understand that certain thoughts and/or behaviors may reflect what their child is going through, whether it’s depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or something else,” said Knab. “That’s been encouraging because we can only do so much at school if the child is returning home to an environment that is not supportive of positive mental health.”
USF St. Petersburg steps in to help identify research and evidenced-based practices, coordinate the funding, facilitate reporting and arrange training, key areas in which the university has ample experience. The Division of K-16 Educational Initiatives within the College of Education served as the coordinator for the Youth Mental Health Awareness Training (YMHAT) Administration Project, part of a larger legislative initiative developed from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.
The training, which was funded initially in 2018 with a $2.2 million grant and then supplemented with a $5.5 million grant in 2019, helps all school employees – from counselors to custodians – identify and understand the signs of emotional distress, mental health difficulties and substance abuse disorders.
The initiatives are part of a growing awareness by Florida policymakers and others of the prevalence of mental illness in our society. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 17 percent of youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder. One in five U.S. adults will also experience mental illness.
“On a national level, we’ve seen more and more Hollywood stars, sports and public figures coming forward and talking about mental health and mental illness,” said Knab. “That certainly is a good message for our students that this affects everybody. It doesn’t matter how rich you are or how famous you are or how good life seems, you can still suffer with mental health issues.”
The youth mental health awareness training is administered in a variety of ways, including a “train the trainer” component that prepares 16 people at a time to share the instruction within their own school district. There is also supplemental training through an online module called Kognito, which provides simulated role-playing scenarios that walk users through difficult conversations.
The National Council for Behavioral Health provides the evidence-based instruction for the “train the trainer” sessions. It’s compared to “mental health first aid,” and the goal is to give all 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.
During a recent session in Pasco County, trainer Eric Weaver stressed the need to empower all school personnel to recognize the signs of mental distress. Bus drivers, office staff and cafeteria workers develop close ties to students and their perspective is often very valuable.
“They might be the only person in that youth’s life who says ‘good morning’ to them,” said Weaver.
While most of the participants in the session were school psychologists, nurses or social workers, the trainers urged them to view the class from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have as much training with mental health issues.
“Put yourself in that person’s mindset and how they might be interacting with the material,” said instructor Denise Elsbree. “We’ll model for you how the class should be taught so that you can bring it back to your schools.”
USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock said he was proud to see the university play a leading role in promoting mental health awareness training.
“Supporting the evolving needs of students is integral to our mission and to higher education as a whole,” said Tadlock. “We’re pleased to continue raising awareness and understanding about this important issue.”