Pasco County Schools is searching for additional ways to better serve its students’ mental health needs.
As part of that effort, the school system brought together student services staff and community mental health providers on May 4 for the district’s first-ever Mental Health Symposium. The seminar’s aim was to raise awareness of students’ mental health, build capacity of staff to respond, and increase collaboration between schools and mental health providers.
The daylong event featured a panel discussion on mental health, plus a series of breakout sessions, which covered such topics as eating disorders, anxiety, school-based violence prevention, trauma reduction and supporting recovery, non-suicidal self-injury, connecting mental health services, and so on.
About 280 student services staff — school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, school nurses and dropout prevention teachers — participated in a morning or afternoon session, said Dave Chamberlin, Pasco Schools student services supervisor.
Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning kicked off the event with a brief introduction, during which he underscored the necessity of the district to provide quality education and to meet students’ mental health needs.
“We have got to be singularly focused on meeting those social and emotional needs of our kids,” Browning said, “before they can even learn to do mathematics or science.”
The symposium, which coincided with Mental Health Awareness Month, was at the district’s offices. Planning for it began in September.
In the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead, Browning noted there’s been a renewed emphasis on mental health, and student and staff well-being.
Offering one possible solution of his own, Browning stated he’s a “huge proponent” of trauma-informed care, an organizational structure and treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of all types of trauma.
“We’ve got to get out and educate our teachers — training our teachers and school-based staff about trauma informed care,” the superintendent said.
That suggestion, among many others, was presented during the hour-long panel discussion featuring community mental health providers, a student, and a parent with experience interacting with the system of care.
Access, awareness and availability of mental health services seem to be ongoing barriers, panelists suggested.
Helping younger children
There’s a great need for more pediatric psychiatrists and pediatric bed space in the county, said Craig Leech, program manager for the Land O’ Lakes-based Morton Plant North Bay Hospital Recovery Center.
Leech explained the recovery facility is only able to utilize 20 of its 25 pediatric beds at a time, and there’s oftentimes a waiting list of several days for children to get the mental services and treatment. “At any given day, we are full and do not have bed space. We are the only pediatric receiving facility in Pasco County,” he said.
Another panelist, Doug Leonardo, senior vice president of Chrysalis Health, said more flexibility is needed in providing mental health services for children.
He advocates conducting school behavioral health screenings to flag potential mental health problems with students at a younger age.
“We need to do a better job at getting upstream of these issues. We have universal screenings in schools for hearing and speech…I don’t know why we would not want to do the same things for mental health issues,” he said.
Leonardo, who’s helped provide mental health and substance abuse in Pasco County and other areas for more than 20 years, also supports creating more community partnerships among schools, law enforcement and mental health professionals.
He emphasized the importance of encouraging parents to be unafraid to seek help for their children who may suffer from mental illness.
“We can treat the kids but, if we don’t have the parents engaged and bought in and helped, it doesn’t really work, so we really need that family system to be involved,” the health professional said.
While health experts described some of community resources available to youth, many students are unaware of what’s available to them, Anclote High senior Emily Leopardi said.
Leopardi overcame a broken home and dysfunctional family life, and is on track to graduate high school and attend Hillsborough Community College in the fall. Growing up, she was fortunate to receive counseling and assistance from Youth and Family Alternatives Inc., and Baycare Behavioral Health.
“I would like to see more support in the schools that focus on mental health, and resources for students like myself who’s family life is challenging. …Without the help of these providers, students like myself can fall through the cracks,” she said.
Other panelists, including moderator Monica Rousseau, said reducing the stigma associated to mental health problems must remain a focus.
Rousseau, coordinator for the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP), referenced a study that more Americans are starting to understand mental illness is very much a chronic illness, like any other physical illness; yet more and more people are associating mental illness with violent tendencies, she said.
“We have shootings, we have a lot of big news stories that are really skewing the way people view people with mental illness, so it’s really important to be stomping out that stigma,” Rousseau said.
Some issues related to children’s mental health services might soon be mitigated with the recent passing of Senate Bill 7026 (“Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act”).
Besides its various school safety mandates, the new law creates mental health assistance allocation for every school district in Florida.
It also requires school districts to deliver a plan focused on delivering evidence-based mental health treatment, assessment, diagnose, intervention services and so on.
For school districts like Pasco, it marks a “big sea change,” Leonardo said.
“We’re going to start asking school districts to do things that I think, historically, they haven’t focused on doing. It probably happens sporadically, but now it’s being mandated,” Leonardo said.
With a solid foundation and framework, and an influx of funds from the new law, Leonardo noted the district and county as a whole is “in a really good position to make some meaningful changes.”
Published May 9, 2018