Duval County Public Schools have offered students mental health resources for years because the district understands that there’s a link between mental and emotional wellness and academic success, according to Katrina Taylor, director of school behavioral health at Duval County Public Schools
Even though there’s a desire to help students, primarily through school counselors, she also knows that there’s a stigma around mental health — and it’s not easy for students to seek help.
Thanks to Emily Merton a college student and Riverside High School alumna, the district just unveiled a new program that involves a new website (https://dcps.duvalschools.org/grow) specifically aimed at mental wellness for youth, as well as student-led organizations at high schools that offer regular activities and initiatives.
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As a communications intern last summer, Merton played a huge role in developing GROW – which stands for Gain Resilience, Obtain Wellness. She knew the district was trying to find more ways to get students to access services. It’s the reason even the name of the program is positive.
“I knew they had great intentions, but they knew they were missing a key ingredient…student voices. How did students feel? What were students saying? What were their needs? As a very recent high school graduate, I knew I could pull from my experience and the experience of my peers. I also knew that I could conduct research,” she said in a statement.
Taylor said that Merton’s research played a big role in finding new ways to overcome the negative stigma surrounding mental health issues, and offering more spaces, organizations, and adults that support mental and emotional wellness.
May is mental health awareness month, a good time to spotlight the efforts of people like Taylor and Merton who are trying to reach youth before they are in crisis mode. Anxiety and depression are the two most diagnosed mental health conditions for middle and high school students, and adjustment disorder is the most diagnosed challenge for elementary students, Taylor said.
Baptist Health and Wolfson Children’s Hospital report a continued influx of mental health crises among our youth. While 2019 had the highest count of behavioral health emergency department encounters for all ages, 2021 had the highest for youth up to age 17.
Melanie Patz, who oversees social responsibility and community outreach efforts at Baptist Health, said that mental illness is treated completely opposite of cancer because people naturally want to help someone diagnosed with that illness.
“That doesn’t happen with mental illness. There’s a lot of stigma and people tend to feel like it’s their fault,” she said. “Mental illness is real, and there are things that can be done to help people to feel better, take care of themselves and stay in recovery.”
“A lot of what we see in children is anxiety or depression,” she said, noting that issues include cyberbullying and high stake tests. “The pandemic just exacerbated it.”
The hospitals are providing resources to the community to help adults assist youth, with the goal of preventing crises and promoting early intervention. One way is to sign up for their “On Our Sleeves” newsletter that offers resources and tips to engage children with important conversation starters. The hospital also offers free 8-hour training in Youth Mental Health First Aid. The course identifies common mental health challenges and teaches people to handle both crisis and non-crisis situations for youth.
The hospital is also among 200 children’s hospitals nationwide that have joined in a national call for legislative action. ” Sound the Alarm for Kids” is a campaign to urge Congress to increase funding to address a national mental health emergency in children and teens.
Whether it’s at a hospital or a school district, mental health experts continually talk about a stigma that prevents youth from seeking help. The community can help by sharing resources.
The GROW initiative started by Duval public schools helps to connect students to school counselors, social workers, and mental health therapists. They’re ready to address needs that range from mental health counseling and academic support to assisting with housing, clothing, and food.
Marcia Pledger is the Opinion and Engagement Editor for the Florida Times-Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.