Mental Health: The Hidden Story
Coweta schools aim to help the students’ mental health
by Celia Shortt
(Editor’s note: This is the third installment in the Times-Herald’s occasional series on mental health services in Coweta County, “Mental Health: The Hidden Story.”)
In 2009, 8 percent of Coweta County high school students attempted suicide, and an additional 14 percent considered it, according to a community needs assessment recently completed by Piedmont Newnan Hospital.
To help those struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression, the Coweta County School System has established guidelines for students, teachers and administrators.
“We have put things in place in order to ensure that we have those guidelines, especially for our students who are contemplating suicide, so we can be consistent throughout the county,” said Maria Carroll, lead psychologist for Coweta schools.
“This is about having the knowledge of how to respond, based on some of the training already received at the district level,” said Mary Cousins, behavioral consultant for the school system. “If a student comes to you in crisis, or with a concern, having those guidelines there allows you to know there are things you can to do in order to assist that student.”
This proactive approach fosters an environment at the district level and in the schools in which students are able get the help needed if they’re depressed or going through a crisis. It also provides help to those who are suicidal.
“We try to create an environment in which students feel safe, have connections with adults and will feel comfortable talking to them,” said East Coweta High School Principal Evan Horton. “All a kid needs is a connection to one adult.”
“We try to make sure they know they are valued,” he added. “This is a safe place, and they are welcomed.”
One way ECHS builds these relationships is through mentor groups. Each group is led by a certified teacher. Students are assigned a mentor group upon starting school. Each student remains in the assigned group throughout his or her high school career.
“We’re trying to make a big school small and make meaningful relationships with adults in this building,” said Horton.
“We follow the guidelines,” said Bill Harrison, principal of Northgate High School. “The key is having open lines of communication with all faculty and staff and to treat every case as serious.”
Harrison said faculty follows up with students on every threat.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” he said. “Putting the word out today is different than putting it out 25 years ago.” Harrison encourages those students who may be nervous about speaking to someone to not let their nerves stop them from getting the help they need.
“I want to help students understand that I am here to help them,” he said. “We’re talking about a life here. I encourage them, make them feel at ease, and whatever they tell me will be used to help them.”
Each school has a counselor or counseling staff available for students. Teachers are also encouraged to look after students and can create a dialogue if it becomes noticeable that a student is going through something difficult. Faculty and school officials follow up if a student comes to them worried about another student.
Parents are able to inform teachers and other faculty if their child is going through something and may need some help. Parents are involved as much as they choose or need to be regarding their child’s treatment.
Under the county’s guidelines, the principal of the school should be made immediately aware of a child’s suicidal threats by parents, faculty or staff.
An SRO or law enforcement officer should then be contacted, and will speak with the student, principal, assistant principal, and school counselor. The students’ parents will also be contacted and informed of the situation. Depending on the threat, the student may need to leave school to receive help or be able to remain in school with scheduled interventions.
Coweta County School Superintendent Dr. Steve Barker encourages the relationships schools are building with students and believes them to be an important element in ensuring the mental health of students.
“We try to rally around these students and provide the resources we have available, giving them access to what would help them the most,” he said.
The vision of Coweta County schools is to ensure the success of each individual student. With guidelines and relationships in place, according to Barker, this commitment includes protecting and caring for students’ mental health.
Resources include district-wide professional training, as well as working with outside agencies for the best counseling and treatment options for students. The school system works in conjunction with these outside groups to fit the needs of individual students.