Teachers, school administrators, food service workers, paraprofessionals, school psychologists and social workers are coming together with one common goal – to learn how to identify and offer support to students who are showing signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
Twenty-seven individuals were selected from a pool of applicants for the first-ever Youth Mental Health First Aid Community of Practice opportunity.
“Youth Mental Health First Aid is an internationally recognized evidence-based program focusing on identifying, understanding and responding to signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders,” said Shanna Hailey, coordinator of school mental health on the Kansas State Department of Education’s (KSDE) Special Education and Title Services (SETS) team. “This is the first time Youth Mental Health First Aid is being approached as a course using the Community of Practice methods. If successful, the project may be replicated in the future.”
The training offers adults who work with students the skills they need to reach out and provide initial support to students who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use-related crisis. Participants learn risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, as well as strategies to help someone in both crisis and noncrisis situations and where they can go for additional help and resources.
KSDE has partnered with DCCCA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s (KDHE) Maternal and Child Health Program to offer the free program.
Beth Courtney, who is in her first year of working in food service at Wamego Unified School District 320, set a goal for herself at the beginning of the year – she wanted to learn each student’s name at Wamego Middle School, where she serves as a cashier in the lunchroom. Courtney is one of the 27 people selected for the program.
She has accomplished that goal and so much more.
“I took the initiative and learned their names,” Courtney said. “Now, we have dialogue, and they open up and start talking to me. I’m definitely not just the lunch lady. I want to make kids feel like they are a part of something – like they belong. When someone knows your name, you feel seen. Most kids come from loving homes and have parents who engage with them. But some don’t – and if we don’t see that, we are naïve or have blinders on. I want to be that positive feedback for them. It’s not just a job for me, it’s fulfilling. I think everyone in every school district should do something similar (to the mental health training). So many times, we can miss those little signs. This type of program can be so beneficial. It can shine a spotlight and make more people aware of what kids are going through.”
Courtney said mental health is “everyday health.”
“It is so often overlooked, especially in students,” she said. “I think that every student deserves to have a trusted adult whom they can feel confident and connected to enough that they can communicate both the positive and negative. Building strong student connections is a vital part.”
Wamego USD 320 has eight staff members who were selected for the program – something that Superintendent Rob McKim is happy about.
“Mental health affects students and impacts their learning,” he said.
McKim has learned a lot more about mental health. When he first started as a teacher, McKim said he “naively” thought students could still learn when struggling with issues.
“I’ve learned students can’t leave those issues at the door,” he said. “We shouldn’t be ashamed about it (mental health) or the need to seek help.”
Lori Smith, a school social worker and transition specialist for the Kansas State School for the Blind, said she wants to be able to help all of her school’s students with mental health needs. One of her friends recently had a child commit suicide, she said, and it hit close to home as there have been students who have tried to do the same.
Smith is looking forward to being able to bounce ideas off of others during her time in the program.
“Any time we can get together and share ideas, that is great,” she said.
Participants will meet virtually via Zoom beginning in late March. There are five, two-hour sessions. Participants also have precourse work to complete and a survey at the end of the program. Professional development credits are available to those who complete the precourse work, attend all five sessions and submit the evaluation survey, Hailey said.
“As part of this training opportunity, Community of Practice sessions (virtual trainings) will allow opportunity for all participants to connect and learn from each other,” she said. “Sessions will focus on best-practice strategies and ideas for new innovations for the school setting.”
Terina Templeton, a virtual program director for Lakeside Learning Center and a junior-senior high school family and consumer science teacher at Wilson High School, Central Plains USD 112, is also participating in the Youth Mental Health First Aid program.
In April 2022, Templeton said that the decision was made to close one of the district’s high schools and combine all high school students in one building.
When the email appeared earlier this year for this program, my first thought was how this would be the perfect training for me to be able to help our kids through the rough school year ahead as we navigated a year of ‘lasts,’ ” she said. “Our community is still fighting for our school, and our kids have had hopes crushed over and over this school year as the community members have made progress, and then in some instances, lost ground throughout the process. I just want to be able to support and help our kids come out of this strife without any lasting scars or worse. They are all so emotional right now and so fragile as they try to process adult decisions …”
Learning opportunities like Youth Mental Health First Aid are important to Templeton because they will help her gain tools to guide and support students.
“Being a kid today is so much harder than when I was a kid,” she said. “I just want to be there for the kid that feels he or she has no one that understands. For the kids, the guidance I can provide for them through learning opportunities such as this will help them to learn to be better adults and pay forward the compassion and assistance I can give them.”
Annelle LeMoine completed a Mental Health First Aid program for the community mental health center she works for but wanted to see the specific process for assisting students during a mental health crisis, she said.
LeMoine is a graduate student at The University of Kansas in the advanced standing social work program and is placed in Olathe USD 233 for her practicum as a school social worker.
“I believe that all who work with youth need some sort of crisis training specific to youth,” LeMoine said. “The students we work with look to us for emotional and mental health support, and it is important to have the knowledge to give that support. I am excited to be a part of this new cohort. I believe the success of this program will encourage all school staff, mental health providers and even parents to seek to understand and support all children.”
Those selected for the program are:
For more information, contact Hailey via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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