On February 28 the Hernando County School District held an educational forum at Hernando High School. The purpose was to inform parents and community members about the effects of mental health on school attendance, academics, behavior and substance abuse. Pastor Del Barnes, Manager of Parent, Family & Community Engagement and Darlene Williams, Exceptional Student Education Paraprofessional were co-emcees of the event. Ms. Williams introduced the Deltona Elementary Musical Doves. They sang several songs, including “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
High school student Robert Kordon introduced students representing the ImPACT program at the various middle schools and high schools. ImPACT stands for Positive Action Change Team. It’s a club made up of students who work to make positive changes in such areas as mental health, substance abuse and bullying. They also encourage positive behavior such as practicing kindness, uplifting students and doing acts of service in the community.
Each student held up a poster that they had designed representing the various ways in which they implement these positive values−being promoters, uplifters, influencers, information resources, being impactful, motivational, through community outreach, and through affirmations. Robert stated, “One true way that we believe we can make powerful change and that is having kids listen to kids. Important decisions don’t come at eighteen or twenty-one. They’re happening now. ”
After a short film showing how the ImPACT program works in the schools, Pastor Barnes introduced the members of the panel that spoke on the topic of the evening. Starting off the discussion was Jill Kolasa, Director of Student Services. The mission of her department is to promote mental health, as well as social and educational development in our students which results in positive academic, social and emotional outcomes for students, families, schools and the community. Ms. Kolasa commented that after the Parkland High School shooting, our district received funds to hire additional mental health staff to address the problems that sometimes lead to acts of violence.
She spoke of the effects that mental health issues have on academics. If a student’s grades start to drop or if they fail to turn in assignments, this should be an early warning sign to parents and teachers. Ms. Kolasa stated, “Building strong bonds and connecting to you [parents] can protect their [the students’] mental health.”
The next speaker was Cynthia Brown-Jackson, a school social worker. She covered attendance which is impacted by a student wanting to isolate when they’re having struggles with depression or anxiety. Sleep patterns may change also. “Avoiding school is sometimes a student’s only way of coping without verbalizing and speaking about how they’re feeling. It’s important for parents and teachers to address these behaviors early because the longer the child is away from school, the more difficult it is for them to be successful once they return,” Ms. Brown-Jackson remarked.
She emphasized that students cannot deal with these struggles alone. They aren’t necessarily going to open up to an adult and tell them how they are feeling. “Sometimes all it takes is one caring adult to take the time and notice and tell the student, ‘Let’s address this.’ ” She suggested that the parent talk to the child, find out what’s going on and validate his feelings. Insist that your child attend school every day, don’t give in to their wishes to stay home. Parents can also request a copy of their child’s attendance records.
Ms. Brown-Jackson suggested that parents make an appointment with their child’s doctor to rule out physical illnesses or to see if medication might be the answer. They can also meet with school staff members to work out a plan for their child. It’s possible that they might need an individualized education plan (IEP) that’s geared to their learning needs and pace. Sometimes a 504 plan can be established. This type of plan helps students who have disabilities−physical or mental− and will sometimes provide a different environment for the child to learn in or other special adaptations.
Kelly Downey and Cindy Ambrose-Spano discussed mental health and its impact on behavior. Ms. Ambrose-Spano explained the physical changes that go on in the brain when someone is going through a crisis situation, depression or anxiety. These changes impact their self-esteem, empathy, motivation, decision-making skills and other aspects of their life.
Ms. Downey discussed strategies that parents can implement to help with these behaviors such as setting clear expectations for your child regarding behaviors in various situations. Setting up a daily routine in the home is also important, especially for younger children. For example, have a set bedtime. Teaching our children to be able to identify a wide range of emotions and how to deal with them is another strategy. She demonstrated calming techniques that parents can teach their children, such as deep breathing, counting to ten, etc. Even drinking cold water can help the brain to refocus negative emotions.
The last speaker was Janice Smith, a substance abuse counselor.
“There is an epidemic [of drug abuse] in our society. Therefore, there is an epidemic in our schools. It continues to compromise the mental health and well-being of our youth,” Ms. Smith stated.
She remarked that in the first thirty days of this school year, her team responded to more than 100 drug violations in our schools. These included possession of drugs, vaping and other drug paraphernalia and alcohol. She stated that the majority of the students are using concentrated marijuana and concentrated nicotine.
“Vaping nicotine is highly addictive and injecting concentrated nicotine can cause acute respiratory failure,” Ms Smith commented. Although the leafy form of marijuana can impair young people and lead to a lack of motivation and other problems, concentrated marijuana (vaping) can cause acute mental disorders. Ms. Smith emphasized that parents need to learn the facts and the consequences of vaping both nicotine and marijuana.
There is a cause and effect situation between mental health and substance abuse. Mental health issues can lead to drug abuse if these issues are not diagnosed and addressed. On the other hand, substance abuse can lead to mental health issues. Ms. Smith mentioned four false beliefs and misconceptions that can lead parents to ignore or downplay use of drugs. The first is the belief that use of drugs is not a big deal and that it’s just a fad with their child. The second misconception is that their child couldn’t possibly be involved with this behavior. Just because their child is athletic, talented or intelligent doesn’t mean that they aren’t using drugs. Another belief is “I did it and I turned out okay.” The last misconception is “there’s nothing I can do about it.” All of these misconceptions need to be dealt with.
She stated that the important thing is to provide consequences for our children when they engage in this sort of behavior. It’s also important that parents recognize tell-tale signs of drug use.
As a counterbalance to the serious nature of the evening’s discussion, there was entertainment by LaRon Hearst playing the electric violin, along with vocals by his wife, Angel, and accompanied by their son on drums. Also, a young man by the name of Sir Isaac Bluford recited an inspirational reading.
In addition to members of the school system, there were representatives from several community mental health agencies who talked about the work of their respective organizations and displayed literature on various topics. These included NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), BayCare Behavioral Health and Premier Community HealthCare.
Mental illness and drug abuse are two of the biggest health issues in our society. Forums like these show how important it is to address these issues as early as possible.