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Grant Aims to Expand Mental Health Training in Colorado Middle Schools

Patrick Campbell
A member of the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club works on a mental health activity at a School Safety Youth Summit in Denver's Montbello neighborhood.

It's no secret that schools struggle to address the mental health issues of their students. Many teachers feel ill-equipped to recognize, let alone support, a student who demonstrates symptoms of mental illness.

That's one reason behind Safe Communities Safe Schools, a University of Colorado-Boulder program designed to encourage emotional health and well-being in schools, and to identify and treat students who have mental health issues. The initiative is the recipient of more than $6 million from the National Institute of Justice to bring the program to 32 middle schools along the Front Range.

Teachers are one of the first people who might notice a young person struggling -- be it coping with academic or extracurricular stress, dealing with family issues, or managing a mental illness like depression. Yet it's difficult for each individual teacher to make mental health a classroom priority. They already have a lot on their hands.

  "Across the board, teachers are conflicted because they care about it but they're not often supported," says Monica Fitzgerald, a clinical psychologist and a researcher for the program.

Teachers tell her that they want to learn more strategies to manage mental health in the classroom, but it's already difficult to balance academic demands.

Credit Patrick Campbell / CU-Boulder
Students rank the most common reasons their peers are bullied at a School Safety Youth Summit in Denver's Montbello neighborhood.

One answer, Fitzgerald says, is to make sure that each teacher learns a few strategies to integrate into lessons; ways for students to manage stress, express themselves, or build positive relationships with their peers. Beverly Kingston, the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at CU-Boulder, agrees.

"Every kid can benefit from social and emotional learning," says Kingston, who will oversee the Safe Communities Safe Schools program. "Every kid can benefit from bully prevention."

Another answer is to make mental health the responsibility of every individual in the school -- not just the teachers. According to both Kingston and Monica Fitzgerald, anyone should be trained to recognize a struggling student, including janitors, receptionists, or the servers in the cafeteria.

"We have to not just teach youth how to recognize their emotions and manage them and be ethically responsible, but we need that to be modeled in the day-to-day interaction by... the people that are around them all the time," says Fitzgerald.

Yet even in the best-prepared schools, staff must be ready to assess when a student's needs are beyond what they can offer. That's why the program also aims to build relationships between schools, mental health resources in the community, and even law enforcement.

One of the first school districts to sign onto the program is the Boulder Valley School District, where Chris Wilderman is the Director of Operations, Security and Environmental Services.

Credit Patrick Campbell / CU-Boulder
Dr. Monica Fitzgerald discusses how to approach a safe adult about mistreatment at a School Safety Youth Summit at the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club.

  "I could go on and on about the requirements for a teacher these days," says Wilderman. "It's very challenging to be a teacher now."

The program interested Wilderman because emotional education isn't currently a part of teacher training in the U.S. Instead, it's treated as something that teachers will pick up with experience.

"There are differences in how you do your day-to-day jobs," says Wilderman. That is, not all teachers will be prepared to handle the same mental issues, even if emotional wellness is something they work on in their classrooms.

Programs like Safe Communities, Safe Schools, he says, give educators the tools to manage their students' mental health.

The money from the National Institute of Justice will establish emotional wellness programs in the Front Range schools through trainings for educators, meetings with parents, and communications with local mental health resources.

Boulder Valley isn't the only school district interested in the program. The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence's Kingston says that many schools in Colorado want this kind of training; it's just a matter of where to fit it in and how to fund it.

"We know what works," Kingston says. "We need as a nation to come together and put it into practice."

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