An estimated 20 percent of youth experience mental health problems in any given year, and approximately 75 to 80 percent of those in need of treatment do not receive adequate care, according to the Texas Health Institute. Failure to address the mental health needs of students prevents more than just academic success; suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, the institute reports.
There are about 16,000 youths in Williamson County with mental health disorders, according to the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Subcommittee of the Williamson County Mental Health Taskforce, which is charged with identifying mental health issues of children in the county.
Since the beginning of the school year, GISD has been implementing new state-mandated suicide-prevention training and mental health first aid training for staff members. The district also partners with multiple county resources in order to meet students’ mental health needs.
Mental health was a legislative priority in both the 83rd and 84th legislative sessions, said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. He championed the Mental Health First Aid Bill in 2013, which allowed educators to take voluntary training courses to help them identify the signs and symptoms of a student in need of mental health aid.
“Mental health is a crisis in our state, and mental health care and funding has been neglected over the years,” he said. “But that changed four years ago when we as a Legislature saw the need to re-evaluate how we handle mental health care in the state.”
In 2015 legislators passed a law that requires new educators to have one hour of mandatory suicide-prevention training.
“Suicide is a tragedy whenever it happens, and unfortunately it tends to happen in school districts on almost a yearly basis if the district is big enough,” Schwertner said. “We need to do more to recognize individuals who might be at risk of suicide and intervene in a timely manner to prevent that tragedy from occurring.”
GISD began implementing the suicide-prevention training through an online program called Eduhero, which offers interactive training with videos and quizzes. The district took the training one step further by having all employees participate, District Lead Counselor Jennifer Porter said.
“We took it to everyone the district, not just teachers—bus drivers, cafeteria workers,” she said.
On top of the one-hour mandatory suicide-awareness and prevention training, the staff also completed three hours of mental health first aid training. The district is conducting a counseling needs assessment at each campus to help identify students who are at risk for depression, peer pressure or suicidal thoughts. Porter said the questionnaires are age-appropriate, will cover school- and health-related topics, and will help counselors identify students in need of help immediately.
GISD had three suicides in the previous school year, and one student committed suicide in the 2015-16 school year. Porter said school employees were on board with the idea of extra training before any loss of life, and the extra training has brought mental health needs to the forefront.
“I think [the training] has been very beneficial; there’s been lots of conversations and questions,” she said. “People are thinking about things.”
The district is also preparing to launch an anonymous reporting system at each campus that will allow students and parents to report concerns to their campus counselor. District counselors will also receive grief and loss training from the Christi Center, crisis intervention training with the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team and suicide-awareness training from Rock Springs Behavioral Health Center.
“We’re looking very closely at different trainings that would benefit our counselors and help them feel more comfortable in myriad situations and be prepared to help students from variety of backgrounds,” Porter said.
[polldaddy poll=9148972]If a student is deemed to be in a mental health crisis, GISD is partnered with many local resources for assistance, including two private behavioral health hospitals, Rock Springs and the Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute.
The district also collaborates with the WCMOT, which sends a team to any campus at the request of a school counselor. The team provides the student with an assessment and will connect him or her with local resources. One of those resources is Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, which provides early childhood interventions, mental health outpatient services for children, counseling to youth and families, and services for youth involved with the Williamson County Juvenile Services.
In 2015, Bluebonnet Trails also began providing outpatient substance abuse treatment for youths in its Georgetown clinic.
“We know our families want the best for their children, and we applaud them for understanding how critical it is to seek and receive assistance when a child is not meeting normal childhood milestones or demonstrates unusual changes in behaviors,” Bluebonnet Trails Executive Director Andrea Richardson said.
Although students could receive a referral to a mental health specialist, Texas has a shortage of psychiatrists, WCMOT Director Annie Burwell said. Since the waitlist for children and adolescents can sometimes last months, Burwell said WCMOT will use in-house resources if necessary.
“Sometimes we just have to figure out how to make things work faster,” she said.
Burwell said servicing mental health needs can be cyclical—local programs that partner with the school district will receive grant funding for several years, then come to a halt when funding is cut.
“I think we’re kind of moving out of those dry spells, or at least I hope so,” she said. “Now the move is to get a lot of programs back into GISD.”