May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In recognition of mental health as one of the most important pieces of school safety today, we asked Safe and Sound advisors, Dr. Melissa Reeves and Dr. Stephen Brock to weigh in on what they see in our K-12 schools today.
Safe and Sound Schools: Drs. Reeves and Brock, what are the top 5 mental health issues and themes you see in our K-12 schools currently?
Drs. Reeves and Brock: It’s difficult to pick just 5, but these make up a great deal of the mental health work we are seeing in the field of K-12 School Safety today.
Two key mental health challenges our schools are facing are:
1. Suicidal ideation and behavior among students.
According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the CDC, rates have significantly increased since 2008 (after over a decade of decline). Nineteen states have passed laws requiring suicide prevention education for educators, the most recent being California. On September 26, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2246 which requires all schools serving students from grades 7 to 12 to adopt comprehensive suicide prevention policies (that address suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention).
2. Increased anxiety due to demands and social pressures.
Academic demands continue to increase and students are feeling the pressures to take more challenging classes. Social pressures, the constant comparisons to others via social media, and readily available access to information for which children and youth may not be ready to comprehend and process, are all contributing to higher levels of anxiety. Schools are beginning to teach students anxiety management strategies to better cope with these stressors.
On the positive side, these are three trends we see schools taking to address mental health in schools:
1. Integration of mental wellness into the curriculum.
Social emotional learning (SEL) programs not only help to keep our young people psychologically well, they have been shown to improve academic performance and decrease referrals for negative behaviors.
2. Prompt identification and treatment of mental illness.
Half of all lifetime cases of mental illnesses emerge during the school years (by age 14). The school environment is the perfect setting for early identification. Universal mental wellness screenings should become as common as vision and hearing screenings.
3. Increasing mental health services and staffing in schools.
Research shows that mental health treatment compliance increases 21 times when it is provided in a school vs. in a community setting. School-employed mental health professionals can work directly with students to learn social-emotional skills that increase social competence and academic achievement, and decrease mental health challenges.
Dr. Reeves is President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools. Dr. Brock is the former President of NASP and speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools.
It seems like just yesterday we welcomed 2016 and yet here we are, several days into second half of the year. We kicked off the first quarter with a new website and several travels to various communities in the country, our second quarter has been no different. We’ve kept busy and true to our mission: empowering communities to improve schools safety.
In April, co-founder, Michele Gay, and speaker’s bureau member, Melissa Reeves, traveled to Virginia to hold reunification trainings with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. Around the same time, co-founder, Alissa Parker, board member, Bob Martin, and speaker’s bureau member, Tau Braun, attended the Preparedness Summit in Dallas, Texas. April travels culminated in Massachusetts where Michele Gay spoke at the Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Conference.
Meanwhile, Safe and Sound Schools focused its online efforts toward school safety and autism awareness. For the blog, Michele Gay shared her family’s personal experience as an autism family while Lisa Borges, executive director of The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, shared safety resources and information for families with autistic children. Safe and Sound Schools also partnered with FEMA, to encourage families to participate in America’s PrepareAThon.
With May in full swing, Michele traveled to Oklahoma to revisit the students of Moore High School and closed out May travels with a visit to Palm Beach, Florida to keynote at the ASIS Law Enforcement Officer Awards.
In the social sphere, Safe and Sound Schools focused on mental health awareness, teacher appreciation week, nurse’s week, youth traffic safety month and EMS week.
As the end of the school year neared, Safe and Sound Schools turned much of its attention to school resource officers. In June, Safe and Sound Schools headed to Tennessee and Wyoming to hold all-day workshops and presentations. With the end of June approaching, Alissa Parker visited Sacramento, California to keynote at the California Department of Public Health’s 2016 Emergency Preparedness Training Workshop: Path to Preparedness. Safe and Sound Schools closed out the second quarter with a trip to Colorado to convene with SROs.
While the Safe and Sound family traveled, online efforts continued with a focus on SROs, national safety month, therapy dogs, allergy awareness month, and special message from Robbie Parker in honor of Father’s Day.
Now that we’ve reached the third quarter, we look forward to sharing some of our new initiatives that will take us into the fourth quarter, including student-focused resources. So, stay tuned for more updates by joining the Safe and Sound family and following us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
In the hours, days, and weeks after an act of school violence, our nation predictably turns its focus to the mental health of the perpetrator. We often assume that the attacker’s behavior was caused by mental illness. This belief provides something of an explanation for us to hold onto in our shock and grief. Believing that the perpetrator suffered from mental illness allows us to distance ourselves just a bit from the individuals who would commit this type of violence. While this explanation may serve as comfort for our wounded psyches, is it valid? What does the research tell us about the connection between mental health and violence?
The majority of people with mental illness do not commit violent acts. A number of studies support the finding that a mere 4% of violence toward others in the U.S. can be attributed to people diagnosed with mental illness. There are, however, specific severe mental illness diagnoses linked to slightly higher rates of violence – schizophrenia, which is characterized by disorganized thoughts and behavior and perhaps a loss of touch with reality, along with the major mood disorders, bipolar disorder and major depression. The truth is, persons with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. Mental illness does, however, carry an increased risk of violence toward oneself – suicide.
We also know that alcohol and drug use and abuse significantly increase risk for violence toward self and others in both mentally ill and non-mentally ill populations.
Mental illness, then, is not the sole cause of school violence. Roughly 1 in 4 people in the U. S. have a diagnosable mental illness and most of them do not feel compelled to act violently. Mental illness is just one risk factor, and the presence of risk factors does not necessarily result in a specific outcome. Many factors are involved in this process.
How can we reliably determine which individuals are at risk for perpetrating violence in our schools?
The practice of threat assessment, developed over the past twenty years, is the tool we use to investigate and determine the level of risk posed by a given individual. Its focus is not on predicting, but on preventing violence.
Quite simply, we can get a glimpse into someone’s mind by observing precisely what the individual says and does. We review all risk factors, behavioral warning signs, and violence inhibitors, to obtain a more complete picture of whether the individual is heading toward violence. Then, we can intervene, get help for the person, and manage the possible threat in a way that will keep others safe. If we find that we do have concerns about the individual’s mental health, this is the time to summon the person’s support system and refer him or her for assistance.
This discussion would not be complete without acknowledging that in the aftermath of a number of school shooting attacks, previously overlooked indicators of undiagnosed mental illness were uncovered. While the incidence of school shooting is rare, and the link between mental illness and violence is tenuous, we always want to watch for signs of possible mental health issues, and attend to them swiftly.
Other risk factors and warning signs of violence include access to weapons, substance use/abuse, noncompliance with psychiatric medication or treatment, fascination/preoccupation with weapons and violence, a commando mentality, holding onto grievances, a model or script for using violence to solve problems, feelings of envy, anger, rage and hopelessness, a sense of being entitled to revenge for a perceived wrong, and a feeling of marginalization from peers. Can a distorted sense of reality or skewed thought patterns be behind some of these factors? Absolutely!
There are also specific protective factors shown to inhibit violence. These may or may not be present in a given individual’s life. It is the totality of the situation that ultimately determines the outcome.
Small steps we can take each day to keep our schools safe include making vital personal connections with our students, fostering a positive, equitable school climate, educating others and ourselves about the risk factors and warning signs of mental illness, suicide, and violence, and keeping a watchful eye on students. We can develop a process in our schools for referral, assessment, and intervention to provide the help our students need. With all of these preventive measures in place, we can trust that we’ve made our schools a much safer place to learn.
– Susan Sibole, B.A. Psychology, M.S. Counseling Psychology, Youth Risk Prevention Specialists
Founder of Youth Risk Prevention Specialists and creator of the SafeAware program, Suzanne Sibole works with school districts nationwide to significantly increase their levels of safety. With the SafeAware program, schools receive step-by-step assistance developing safety and crisis response plans and setting up violence threat assessment teams. Suzanne trains all staff on everyday school safety, detecting the warning signs of suicide and violence, and the importance of reporting and following up. She then works with key staff members until they are confident assessing individual cases and managing potential school threats. She also speaks to parents about their critical role in school safety and violence prevention. Suzanne has trained at the Gavin de Becker Academy, is a member of ATAP (Association of Threat Assessment Professionals), and works with with national school safety and threat assessment experts.
 Friedman, Richard A., M.D. The New York Times, December 17, 2012.
 Brekke JS, Prindle C, Bae SW, Long JD. Risks for individuals with schizophrenia who are living in the community. Psychiatric Services. 2001; 52(10):1358–1366. [PubMed]
 University of Washington School of Social Work http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_suicide.php
 Singh, Pavita, MPH. Huffpost Media, Jan 28, 2016
 Langman, Peter. School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, Rowan & Littlefield, January 2015
When Tragedy Strikes at School: Lessons Learned
Jim Witt, Superintendent of Lake Local Schools, Millbury, Ohio
On June 5, 2010, at approximately 11:30 PM, a level E-F 4 tornado roared through the Toledo, area, causing death and destruction in several outlying suburbs. Our community, eight miles east of Toledo, was particularly hard-hit, with eight resulting deaths . Additionally, millions of dollars of property destruction occurred, including Lake High School, which was completely destroyed by the storm’s fury.
In the aftermath of the disaster, we began the rebuilding process. With our schools at the heart of the community, this was the starting place for many of our efforts to recover and rebuild the community. We learned many lessons as we debriefed and recovered.
Below, I share the most critical lessons learned by our school community during our time of need:
- Provide mental health services for survivors of all kinds. We were immediately in touch with mental health experts. They provided us with guidance and information that lessened the pain of loss, trauma, and displacement throughout our community, as well as providing trauma-informed support for responding personnel.
- Limit the size of the decision-making group. We created a key group of administrators and board members, each assigned a specific area of responsibility for the duration of intervention, debriefing, and recovery.
- Choose a guiding principle. We used the litmus test of “What is best for kids?” as we encountered difficult choices.
- Hire a public adjustor to help with the insurance claim. The firm we hired was incredibly helpful with our claim. To this day, I believe this was the best money spent on our entire project.
- Make friends with the media. Local, regional, and national news outlets can be very beneficial to an organization during a time of need. We made a point to accommodate the requests of almost all media; they provided us with very positive coverage throughout the process.
- Use humor to get through the most difficult times. A difficult undertaking, to rebuild a campus and a community requires untold hours. A dose of levity — always tasteful and within a professional context — in our regular meetings helped to relieve stress and pressure.