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.
We asked Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse Lewis and founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to share some reflections with us this month…
February is the month of love. When we think of love, we think about our families, friends, pets, flowers…the things that makes us smile. Love makes us feel good.
What’s more, you can choose love.
The first step is to begin to think about what you think about. Just be aware of the steady stream of thoughts going in and out of your mind. Research shows that in general, we have between 60 and 80,000 thoughts per day. The majority of these thoughts (70%) are angry, not productive and don’t serve us. Up to 90% of our thoughts are repetitive. They are the same thoughts we had yesterday, the day before, the week before, and sometimes even years before! We know that every thought we have impacts us on a cellular level and affects our general well-being. Knowing this, we realize the importance of choosing love!
Although we don’t often think about it, love is a conscious choice. We make this choice, or not, many times during the day. Every time we choose love, we benefit mentally by firing corresponding neurons in our brain, and releasing feel good neurochemicals. We benefit physically as well, by strengthening our immune system, lowering our blood pressure and improving heart health. Emotionally, we experience greater happiness, deeper meaning, and more satisfaction in our lives.
When you have a negative or angry thought, you can actually change it into a loving thought. A lot of times we use negative self talk. “I can’t believe how dumb I am.” “I am unattractive.” “I am unlovable.” Would you say these things to a friend? Of course not. You can change this negative self-talk to, “I will learn from my mistakes.” “My inner beauty is reflected on my outside as well.” and, “I am worthy of love.”
If you find yourself remembering something that made you angry in the past, ask yourself if it is worth negatively impacting your health or even empowering the person who might have made you angry? When we dredge up negatives from the past, our body responds as if it is happening right now. Our hearts beat quicker, our cheeks flush and we feel the same anger coming back. Stop there. Choose love. Take your power back and choose a different thought.
An easy shortcut to choosing love is to think of something you’re grateful for when you’re feeling angry or sad. It’s impossible to have a grateful thought and an angry thought at the same time.
Perhaps the best way to choose love is to do something for someone else. Research shows that doing for others promotes social connection and cultivates relationships. When we do something for someone else it counteracts depression, anger and anxiety. It increases our self-confidence and gives us a sense of purpose. In fact, studies have shown practicing compassion in action increases your lifespan. All the love and energy we give out, comes back to us, and the personal benefits are countless.
This is the perfect month to start choosing a loving thought over an angry thought. That is how the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement began. I found a message my six year old son, Jesse, had written on our kitchen chalkboard shortly before he was murdered in the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He wrote, “Nurturing Healing Love.” I knew if his killer had been able to give–and receive love–that this tragedy would never have taken place.
At Jesse’s funeral, I told the congregation that I believed the whole tragedy started with an angry thought. And an angry thought can be changed. I asked everyone to “think about what they were thinking about,” and choose one loving thought over an angry thought every day.
Some of those in attendance told me that this one simple act has transformed their lives. Choosing to change just one angry thought into a loving thought a day, will help you feel better, will benefit those around you, and through the ripple effect will help make the world a safer, more peaceful and loving place.
Learn more about the life’s work of Scarlett Lewis and the movement that her son Jesse has inspired at jesselewischooselove.org!
Scarlett Lewis, Founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, mother of Jesse Lewis, and Safe and Sound speaker/instructor, shares our dedication to the safety of children. Here she talks about her mission and Jesse’s legacy, teaching love and compassion to prevent violence and promote peace.
After the shooting death of my 6 year old son, Jesse Lewis, along with 19 of his classmates and 6 educators, two questions emerged from my shock and horror: How could something like this happen? What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
I watched as people began pointing fingers, first at the shooter, his mother, and then at guns, politicians, video games and media—all to no avail. When blaming and demanding that others fix the problem doesn’t work, what then? We must take responsibility for what is happening to our children and in our society. We must be part of the solution. The truth is that every school shooting is preventable. Period.
Before Jesse’s funeral, I found a message he had written on our kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died, “Norturting Helinn Love” (Nurturing Healing Love). Those three words are in the definition of compassion across all cultures. Love is as necessary to our healthy existence as food and water. This need unites and connects us all as humans. What if we could infuse our classrooms with love and teach all children how to give, and receive love?
The hard fact of the matter is, some children do not receive love at home and in their lives. I set out to figure a way to get Jesse’s message into classrooms with my understanding that if the shooter knew how to give, and receive love, our tragedy would never have happened. I found that this was already being done, through Social and Emotional Learning, “SEL”.
SEL has been around for decades and teaches children how to get along with one another, how to manage their emotions, have empathy for others and show compassion – basically how to be responsible and kind citizens. Children and adults without these skills suffer from feeling a lack of connection to others, impaired–if not disabled–ability to learn, increased physical and mental health issues, and increased rates of drug abuse and incarceration among other negative implications.
Studies show that children who receive SEL have better academic performance, more positive attitudes and behaviors, and experience less anxiety and depression. Long-term studies following kindergarteners who were taught Social and Emotional Learning skills into adulthood have found there were higher graduation rates and even less divorce rates among these individuals. In fact ALL the research on SEL shows that this is the most powerful and proactive mental health initiative we have, and cultivates safer and more positive classroom and school climates.
When I think about what we focus on in schools other than academics: anti-bullying, drug awareness, suicide prevention, sex education, it looks to me like we are teaching kids what not to do. Social and emotional learning teaches kids what to do by providing a positive focus on tools and skills that can help children feel good, about themselves and others.
Columbia University did a study recently that showed for every $1 invested in SEL programs there was an $11 return to the community. I can’t think of a better investment –in our children, in our safety, and in our futures. In fact, SEL has proven to be more important than academics, when determining future success. When children have these skills, personal and academic achievement follows.
The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is committed to making sure every child has access to this life-changing and life-saving education. This fall we are piloting our signature Choose Love Enrichment Program, Pre-K through 12th grade, that includes SEL, Character Values, Positive Psychology, Neuroscience, Mindfulness and more. The Choose Love Enrichment Program teaches children a formula to choose love in every situation, based on Jesse’s message. This is offered online and is free at www.jesselewischooselove. org.
Scarlett Lewis, Founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, mother of Jesse Lewis, and Safe and Sound speaker/instructor.
The Safe and Sound Team has been busy this quarter. Guided by our mission of empowering communities to improve school safety, we’ve continued our travels, flying near and far to speak and work with communities and professional groups across the country .
July travels kicked off with a trip to Robertson County, Tennessee, where Michele presented to district staff preparing for the start of a safe school year. Then it was off to Littleton, Colorado, where Safe and Sound speaker, Frank DeAngelis, and co-founder Michele Gay attended The Briefings: A National School Safety Symposium, hosted by the I Love U Guys Foundation at Columbine High School.
On July 21, Safe and Sound board members convened in Boston, Massachusetts to reflect upon the progress and future plans for the organization. A couple days later, Michele attended the Campus Safety East Conference in Washington D.C., where Safe and Sound was represented along with several other school safety non-profits, thought leaders, and industry representatives. Soon after, Michele headed back to Tennessee to present to the Bledsoe County district staff, as they finalized preparations for the 2016-17 school year. July travels concluded with Michele keynoting for the Kentucky Firefighters Association, where she was able to spend time with many dedicated professionals and educators.
In August, Michele traveled to the Cypress-Fairbanks Schools in Texas and presented to a room full of district leaders and educators. Michele also traveled to the Maryland School Safety Center and Indiana Academy of Safety Specialists to present and teach. In Long Beach, California, board member, Bob Martin represented Safe and Sound Schools and spoke to an audience of emergency managers, educators, and safety & security professionals at the Campus Safety West Conference.
September brought the “official” start of school for many, beginning with visits to Virginia where Michele and Dr. Melissa Reeves, led two full day reunification workshops for area educators, safety directors, law enforcement and mental health professionals. Later in the month, Michele traveled to Columbus Ohio to present a webinar and hold a community forum sponsored by Status Solutions.
September ended with the addition of Natalie Hammond to the Safe and Sound Schools speaking team. Natalie presented for the Tennessee Department of Education’s “Creating Compassionate Schools” conference, sharing her perspective and personal journey as a survivor of the Sandy Hook School tragedy. She was very warmly received and praised by all in attendance. We are deeply honored to have Natalie with us, sharing her experience and dedication to safe schools.
The Safe and Sound team continued engaging the national community with #100DaysOfSafety, a summer social media campaign, aimed at providing online users with 100 safety tips over the course of 100 days. With the end of #100DaysOfSafety, Safe and Sound Schools launched #ChangeForSchoolSafety –a campaign aimed encouraging community members to collect loose change and donate their collections to Safe and Sound Schools this year on #GivingTuesday, November 29.
Perhaps the one of the biggest highlights of our third quarter was the addition of Status Solutions to the Safe and Sound community. Thank you to the Status folks for supporting and sharing our mission of safer schools nationwide. We look forward to working together to spread the word and empower even more school communities.
For day-to-day updates on all things Safe and Sound, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. For information on our current campaigns, visit our website to learn about #ChangeForSchoolSafety and #GivingTuesday. Be a part of the change for school safety!
January, February, and March have come and gone with Safe and Sound Schools bringing its message to new communities and new social media channels.
This year’s first quarter started with the culmination of the Shine A Light for Safer Schools campaign, the holiday fundraiser we launched last November. Safe and Sound Schools raised over $3,500 through online and mail donations, some of which has already been used to update our free online materials and website.
By mid January, Safe and Sound Schools turned its focus to onboarding new students from PRLab, Boston University’s student-run public relations agency. This is Safe and Sound Schools’ fourth time working with PRLab students who help the organization meet its outreach initiatives. We are lucky to have such great talent from BU to support our growing organization!
In the months of February and March, Safe and Sound team members travelled to several communities across the country. Michele travelled across the state of Tennessee, presenting to full houses of school administrators, educators, mental health professionals, and law enforcement in Knoxville, Murfreesboro, and Jackson, Tennessee. She then made her way to the Midwest to present to an audience of over 150 at the 2016 Tuscarawas County School Safety Summit in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. Michele concluded her February travels in Baltimore, Maryland. Joined by her husband, Bob Gay, Michele accepted a $20,000 endowment award from the BFG Community Foundation, an organization dedicated to affecting positive change in local communities by supporting charitable organizations.
In early March, Frank DeAngelis, Safe and Sound speaker & former principal of Columbine High School and Paul Timm, Safe and Sound advisor & author of School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program, presented at the Axis School Safety Symposium in Syracuse, NY. On the same day, Michele traveled back to the South, to Decatur, Alabama, where she presented to a room of approximately 400 administrators, educators, law enforcement, and mental health professionals at the 14th Annual Alabama Child Safety Conference.
By mid March, Safe and Sound Schools launched it’s new website, complete with new additions, including a Press Room, Speaker’s Bureau, and an improved user-friendly interface. We’ll continue to add to the site this year.
March also found us busy in Massachusetts, with Michele attending the Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officers Association conference and working with three local school districts, to support the unique efforts of each community to improve school safety. We are excited to see our collaborative model take hold close to home and across the country!
Communications efforts continued with Safe and Sound Schools using social media platforms to celebrate social work month, highlighting and celebrating the contributions and positive impact social workers have on school safety and children. We concluded March and social work month with featured guest blogger & Safe and Sound Schools advisor, Shari Nacson, a Cleveland-based clinical social worker specializing in child development.
To keep up with Safe and Sound Schools daily, connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and now, Instagram. Stay tuned for more about our spring travels and additions to our new speaker’s bureau in the next quarter.