A program to gauge mental health in middle schools
Concerns over growing teen suicides nationwide and youth mental health issues have prompted officials at Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 to start talking about it in class and assess whether students are at risk.
This month the district rolled out a suicide prevention and depression awareness program, known as Signs of Suicide or SOS, for seventh- and eighth-graders. It's the latest effort to address students' social and emotional needs.
Students watch a video, participate in group discussion and answer questions to determine whether they are at risk of depression or have suicidal tendencies, said Kristin Schmidt, assistant director of special education and a social worker.
"We are seeing an increase in school clinicians needing to do crisis assessments," Schmidt said. "We do a crisis assessment if we believe there is a significant risk of harm of self or others. To date, we have done 100 crisis assessments at our three middle schools (this school year)."
That's out of roughly 2,600 students in sixth through eighth grades. The district has exceeded the number of crisis assessments done by this time last year and is seeing a gradual yearly increase in students struggling with emotional issues. The numbers were alarming enough to create the impetus for the SOS program, which will be an ongoing effort by teachers, school psychologists, social workers and outside clinicians trained in analyzing the screening data.
"Oftentimes mental illness isn't talked about," said Scott Campbell, clinical director of Samaritan Counseling Center of the Northwest Suburbs.
A therapist from the Barrington-based center will support District 47 teachers and staff members with the program's rollout.
Parents were allowed to opt out of the program and three chose to do so, officials said.
April Runge of Lakewood said her high school freshman daughter has lost two peers who took their own lives. Her 13-year-old son now attends Bernotas Middle School in Crystal Lake.
"We know it's a growing problem and we just need to talk about it as a community," Runge said.
Campbell said suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds. Nationwide, there are 46,000 yearly.
"Nine out of 10 people that take their lives have a diagnosable mental health issue," he said. "That's why early intervention and prevention is really important. Teaching people how to look for the symptoms and getting people help, that's really the key."
Several factors could lead to students feeling stressed or overwhelmed, including bullying, cyberbullying, lack of access to mental health services, or personal traumas at home.
"There is a huge genetic component to social-emotional issues," Schmidt said. "Management requires access to services and support that we don't always have. Teaching them the coping skills to be able to deal with those traumas, it has to be priority one."
Officials believe teens accessing information online and social media have exacerbated the problem.
"The impulsivity of teenagers coupled with the access that they have is like a recipe for disaster," Schmidt said.
This year, District 47 hired a full-time social-emotional coach to help support employees districtwide and train teachers on recognizing the red flags in students.
SOS is another means of targeting the problem. Over the past several years, the district has implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a program emphasizing teaching, modeling and reinforcing positive traits. Its elementary schools teach social-emotional learning skills to kindergarten through fifth-graders through a curriculum called Second Step. Teachers also screened for at-risk students in those grades this fall.
Last year, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders districtwide participated in a three-day depression awareness curriculum called Erika's Lighthouse. Students learned coping skills, strategies to get support, and how to seek help. It is being offered again this year to all sixth-graders, while SOS is implemented in the upper grades.
The SOS program is being funded this year by Elyssa's Mission, a Northbrook-based foundation providing help, support and prevention programs to public and private schools.
Going forward, District 47 leaders are committed to funding the $1,500 to $1,900 per-building program cost, Schmidt said.