How McHenry County is training educators to detect youth mental health issues
Educating students nowadays isn't just about teaching the curriculum and preparing them for tests.
Teachers increasingly are dealing with students' struggling with anxiety, depression, substance use, eating disorders, psychosis and disruptive behaviors.
"The amount of mental health issues that we are seeing in schools has exponentially increased in recent years, whether it's ADHD, anxiety, depression, self-harm ... our teachers were never really trained about mental health or social-emotional development," said Kristin Schmidt, assistant director of special education for Crystal Lake Elementary District 47.
Suburban school districts have been dealing with such issues individually by hiring more counselors, providing social-emotional supports for students, and training employees on trauma-informed teaching methods.
McHenry County is taking a more comprehensive approach. The county mental health board is working with school districts to bring Youth Mental Health First Aid training to educators countywide.
It teaches school personnel how to detect and help adolescents experiencing mental health issues or who are in crisis. The course reviews typical adolescent development and teaches a five-step action plan for how to help young people in crisis and non-crisis situations. Those steps are: assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies.
"It gives you an opportunity for early intervention," said Schmidt, who also serves on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Making sure everyone who crosses paths with students has baseline understanding of mental health issues and is equipped to handle it is key, she added.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports 1 in 5 children ages 13 to 18 years experiences a severe mental disorder at some point.
In McHenry County, 358 children under the age of 18 required inpatient mental health services in 2016. Nearly one-third of these youths had multiple admissions during the year, according to the Illinois Hospital Association.
McHenry County's own assessment of child and adolescent mental health and psychiatric needs in 2017 highlighted a growing problem and need for increased access to services, said Scott Block, executive director of the McHenry County Mental Health Board.
"With the pressures of today's society, both in the educational (and) social environment in which children are using many different social media platforms ... there have been anecdotal increases in anxiety, depression, body image issues, and bullying-related concerns, all of which have exacerbated mental health-related issues within our youth," Block said. "Our response was to increase and bolster some of our community-based services."
The board made mental health counselors available to all school districts for consultations with students, and developed a partial hospitalization program for adolescents in Crystal Lake in partnership with Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health.
In January, the mental health board authorized up to $40,000 in funding to provide the Youth Mental Health First Aid training to public and private schools to help them meet a new state mandate requiring school boards to adopt and implement policies recognizing and addressing mental health issues.
"Our goal is early identification, which will lead to prevention of increased or exacerbated symptoms, and allowing a pathway to treatment or recovery support services," Block said. "(The training) is intended to give adults some basic ideas of what to look for and give them some tools to help respond."
Youth Mental Health First Aid is a nationally recognized model used by the Illinois Association for Behavioral Health to educate teachers, school personnel, parents, neighbors -- anyone not a therapist or clinician -- on how to support adolescents/children with mental health issues and provide crisis intervention, Schmidt said.
The five-day McHenry County training in August will be provided by certified national trainers and facilitated by the Crystal Lake chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It is geared toward middle and high school administrators, special education staff, social workers and psychologists.
"This will provide them a lens of empathy," Schmidt said. "They can apply it to how they choose to interact with students in their classroom or change expectations for classroom behaviors, modify workload for students with high anxiety ... that's hard for some old-school teachers."
Participating districts include District 47, Community Unit District 300, Huntley Community School District 158, Cary District 26, McHenry High School District 156, McHenry District 15 and the Special Education District of McHenry County. Select personnel from 17 school districts initially will be trained. The districts then must come up with action plans to train all employees over several years.
"Districts are typically doing their own thing in their own way," Schmidt said. "Historically, the problem has been we have been our own islands ... and you have the same weaknesses in the staff. We're in this together. We need to continue to collaborate together to use resources better and we need to be talking to our outside providers."
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