Mental health awareness effort hits area schools

From left: Joni Greenberg, coordinator, Project Aware trainer/evaluator, meets with Tricia Ballard, Kija Wilson and Stephanie Harding Friday afternoon at the Ramer Center in Martinsburg. (Journal photo by Ron Agnir)

From left: Joni Greenberg, coordinator, Project Aware trainer/evaluator, meets with Tricia Ballard, Kija Wilson and Stephanie Harding Friday afternoon at the Ramer Center in Martinsburg. (Journal photo by Ron Agnir)

MARTINSBURG–Some are calling mental illness a silent epidemic — especially among children –and schools are working to spread awareness and help students.

Valerie Ledford, of Kearneysville, said her adopted son was just 5 years old when first diagnosed with a mental health disorder called “Reactive Attachment Disorder.”At age 9, he was hospitalized.

Up to one in five kids living in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. So, in a classroom of 25 students, five of them may be struggling with the same issues many adults face, from depression to anxiety.

Whether treated or not, children still attend school. The struggles they face can be directly linked to major problems found in schools like chronic absence, low achievement, disruptive behavior and dropping out, experts said.

That’s why mental health awareness is an important issue for all educators, who are often the first line of defense for their students.

At a Berkeley County Board of Education meeting in early February, Ledford shared her story.

“He had a really rough beginning. He’d been in foster care, went through a couple of homes and things just didn’t work out for him,” Ledford said. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but he did witness a lot of things that most adults have never witnessed at a very, very young age. Honestly, we didn’t really know anything about Reactive Attachment Disorder until last year when he was in fourth grade.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, babies and young children displaying symptoms of RAD appear sad, fearful and irritable. They don’t respond to being picked up or comforted. They withdraw emotionally and are wary and watchful of other people because they lack trust and expect hostility or rejection. Children with RAD also show no interest in playing games, interacting with peers or engaging in any type of social interaction.

Ledford said more resources need to be available for youth who are suffering with mental health issues.

“As a community, we need your help. It is time that this school system recognizes that mental illness is a lifelong struggle,” Ledford said. “Trauma permanently damages the brain. Not all children are resilient and sometimes love is not enough. A child that comes from a hard place needs extra support.”

Ledford added mental health education should be more prevalent in schools.

“Sometimes this is as simple as opening communication between teachers and parents,” Ledford said. “My child’s mental health was never addressed because of his grades. What we were being told when we did try to reach out for help, was that they just didn’t see an issue because his grades were fine. However, there were other issues he was having. He needed extra support that his school could not provide.”

Recently, steps have been made in Berkeley County to implement mental health resources for educators and families.

Project AWARE, a grant program implemented in 2016, is designed to help state and local education agencies increase awareness of mental health issues among school-age youth. It is also designed to train educators and other youth-serving adults in “Youth Mental Health First,” so they may detect and respond to mental health issues, as well as connecting children, youth and families who may experience behavioral health issues with appropriate services.

“The program got started through a grant called Project AWARE. It was a President Obama initiative after the Sandy Hook shooting,” said Joni Greenberg, Project Aware coordinator for Berkeley County. “The grant money was used to increase access to mental health services for young people and then to also teach youth mental health first aid.”

Greenberg said Project Aware has recently partnered with East Ridge Health Systems–a local mental health clinic in Martinsburg– to help more students in the area.

“We only recently partnered with East Ridge, and it has helped so much,”Greenberg said. “We started out with only185 referrals our first year. This year, we’re at almost 500 referrals. Students and parents now learn about our services through schools, principals and their counselors. We have a pretty even mix, starting at Pre-K, all the way up to high school students that use our services. “

Mental health therapists in Berkeley County are also available to help.

Stephanie Harding, mental health therapist at East Ridge Health Systems in Martinsburg, said it’s best to request help right away.

“We’re putting out a lot more fires and things aren’t getting as bad,” Harding said. “For the majority of the kids, it’s not getting as bad as when there were absolutely no services available, or they had the year wait list at places like East Ridge.”School guidance counselors also play a crucial role. In some schools, counselors focus solely on academics. But in others, they also act a lot like social workers, serving as a link to families and working with students who need support. Often because of a lack of resources, there aren’t enough counselors to tackle the job. Kids in need can potentially fall through the cracks.

Tricia Ballard, elementary school counselor at Tomahawk Intermediate School, said that sometimes additional resources are needed.

“I have just been so thankful to have this resource, because five years ago if I would make a mental health referral, I felt like there was a 15 or 20 percent chance that a student would get services,” Ballard said. “Having Project AWARE increases that tremendously. This year I’ve made 18 referrals and 15 of my students have received services. Now I feel like I get 75 to 80 percent that actually receive mental health services.”

Ballard said at the school level, counselors help students on a tier-based system.

“Tier one would be for the whole entire school population and those are things that we provide in class, like developmental guidance lessons where we visit the classroom. We provide support and positive behavior programs throughout the school,” Ballard said. “Tier two programs are more targeted to a student that’s not being successful in the classroom. Maybe they’re having trouble remembering to raise their hand from impulse control problems or just having trouble making friends. We might pull them into small groups and work with them for about six weeks. And then tier three are students that I consider for Project AWARE. Those are students that we’ve tried tier one and tier two, and they’re really not being successful. Their behavior or their emotions are interfering with their learning with functioning in general. That’s where teachers and administrators meet to try to make plans for students who just need that individualized attention.”

Kija Wilson, Project AWARE trainer, said teachers and administrators can help by completing specialized trainings.

“These trainings are actually designed for people without a mental health background,” Wilson said. “They’re free and open to the public and I usually have spaces offered twice a month. What I try to do is teach people. Say your thing is that you are a science teacher, and you really just want to just teach science. You still need to be able to identify if somebody in your class needs help. It teaches you how to identify those symptoms and what to do when that arises. So, it’s a good basic first aid class, except it’s dealing with mental health.We are in a new environment. This is no longer the case where you are just a teacher and you only teach your subject and are done. You have to have a different set of skills.”

Greenberg agreed, stating everyone in the school system has a part to play.

“The earlier you start, the better chance you have of making the child successful and having a good life,” Greenberg said. “By having the services available at school, and having teachers trained to recognize what’s going on as well as parents, you know, we can all work together on this.”

For more information about mental health services in Berkeley County,visit https://www.berkeleycountyschools.org/Page/528.

For information regarding Project AWARE, visit https://www.berkeleycountyschools.org/Page/7091 or follow @ProjectAwareBC on Twitter.

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