Over the past year since Florida Legislature passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, in wake of the Parkland shooting, schools across the state have spent time amping up their student mental health services.
Volusia County is no exception — it's been working to implement a Youth Mental Health First Aid Program.
Within the past year, over 600 staff and faculty members have been trained in the YMHFAP, including Volusia County Schools Superintendent Tom Russell, said Amy Hall, coordinator of student government relations for Volusia County Schools. There is a maximum of 30 people in one training. The goal is for all staff and students to be trained within the next three years.
“This is not unique to Volusia,” Hall said. “This is happening across the state of Florida and our district has just been very proactive in making sure we’re meeting the legislation requirements, and doing it very swiftly.”
The purpose of the training is to introduce common mental health challenges for youth, review adolescent development and teach a five step action plan for how to help young people in crisis and non-crisis situations.
There are two components to the program, one is specifically for adults, and the other trains students to recognize issues with friends who may be struggling. Currently the program is focusing on training adults.
Topics of the program include anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders and eating disorders. The School District has created a group with students interested in mental health issues to help with feedback about what is and isn't effective in creating student awareness.
“They have been great in meeting with Halifax [Behavioral Services] and the superintendent” Hall said. "Students have said, 'Here’s what’s great, here’s what you are missing. You guys are putting posters up. We’re not looking at posters. Put it through Twitter. Do your posters through Instagram.'"
In addition to the YMHFAP, Volusia County Schools has contracted nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise to train staff members and students in a “Say Something Program,” which teaches about warning signs that are often present when someone is considering hurting themselves or others. The program also guides individuals how to anonymously and safely report potential threats.
The schools have also partnered with various community groups and have done trainings on weekends. Some of the additional trainees include Bethune-Cookman University, substitute teachers, Volusia’s teachers’ organization, and a group of Boy Scout leaders.
The county has five mental health teams that consist of a licensed clinical social worker, a licensed mental health counselor and a psychologist.
“Every time we have a student who is in crisis, or there is a death,” Hall said. “We send out that team. They do evaluations and for the first time ever, we are conducting Baker Acts within schools. If a school calls me and says, ‘I have a student who needs to be evaluated’, our response time right now is under 30 minutes.”
Hall said that at least one to two Baker Act evaluations a day are happening, which tells her that students need a great deal of support and are struggling.
The Florida Baker Act is the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971 that allows for involuntary examination of an individual who has proof of a mental illness, or is out of control and deemed to be a danger to themself or others.
The schools have partnered with Halifax Behavioral Services and use the same screening techniques. Students are then able to get right in to see a physician.
Partnerships with other area mental health centers and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Department make it easier to follow up with students who may have had mental health crises during evening and weekend hours, so that a student is checked on and followed up with support services when they return to school.
Hall said that they are seeing more students in crisis at the elementary level. Many students do not know how to manage their emotions, and de-escalate themselves. Teaching social and emotional skills has become a priority. The School District has seen a reduction in discipline at the elementary and middle schools as a result of educating students.
On the national level, Lady Gaga has made headlines with her nonprofit organization, Born This Way Foundation. The Foundation has partnered with the National Council for Behavioral Health and is called, Mental Health First Aid.
It is a program that will train students in grades ten through twelve to recognize mental health issues and learn ways to help their friends who may be struggling.
The Mental Health First Aid Program will focus on issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders. The program will be piloted by a few schools in the spring, then expanded to more schools around the nation in the fall.