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Addressing Student Mental Health Needs Part 1

Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools, and the nation as a whole, have recently seen an increase in mental health issues among adolescents and elementary students. Because of this, GJPS wants to proactively provide students at all levels the support required to flourish socially and emotionally.

Teachers review materials to provide support in the classroom at a recent Professional Development Day.

Depression and anxiety are more than medical conditions – they can become safety issues too, which is why GJPS is proactively working to identify students with symptoms early and teaching them how to process and manage their emotions in safe ways. The district is passionate about this pervasive problem impacting our youth today and is sharing a three-part series to highlight the growing need to address mental health and the specific measures the district is putting into place to offer support. In addition, the series will provide parents with warning signs to look out for and what to do if their child shows symptoms of mental health issues.

Recent GJPS Professional Development Days have been devoted to staff and student mental health.

“A significant number of the behavior and mental health issues we see in our schools and across the country stem from the rise of social media,” said Lisa Kelley, administrator of school-based prevention and counseling. “Students are constantly comparing themselves to others who curate a perfect, unattainable life online. It’s the source of a lot of stress and low self-esteem. There also is a major increase in children who have experienced or are experiencing traumatic stress at home and have behavioral and mental health issues as a result. We provide trauma informed care to these students, as it is difficult for them to concentrate on learning because it’s not their main focus.”

The effects of mental health problems can be incredibly serious. The most common mental illnesses in students across the country are depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, which have led to a rise in hospitalizations. To be better equipped for these issues, the district has made several changes to offer support to students who need it. This school year, the district hired additional counselors for the elementary schools – ensuring they now have one counselor per school. The elementary school counselors lead whole class lessons to teach students how to process emotions, host small group counseling for at-risk students and conduct individual counseling for those students requiring one on one support.

Key note speaker Dr. Melissa Crum addresses teachers and staff during the January Professional Development Day.

At the middle school level, mental health specialists and school counselors have provided lessons for small groups and individuals as well as entire grade levels. Meeting with all students in a particular grade level within their regular classes can provide valuable information to all students who may not otherwise step forward requesting advice. Already a challenging time emotionally for students, school officials have seen an increase in the number of students who need support for anxiety and depression in the middle schools, according to Kelley. By adding mental health specialists to the district’s staff, we are better equipped to identify symptoms and intervene early.

School Counselor Loni Williams provides a lesson to a seventh-grade class at Middle School East.

At Gahanna Lincoln High School, counselors offer a combination of group counseling and individual counseling sessions. The high school also has a dedicated SMART (Stress Management and Resiliency Training) Lab, which is a safe place for students to go when they’re feeling overly anxious or overwhelmed. One activity available in the SMART Lab is a heart monitoring station where students can track their heart rate when they arrive, choose a calming activity such as breathing exercises, and then test their heart rate again to see how it has changed. Students may also choose other calming activities such as drawing and coloring, yoga exercises or even an elliptical machine depending on what type of activity best helps them decompress when feeling overly stressed.

Kristen Santel discusses Trauma-Informed Care in the classroom with teachers and staff.

“Many students are struggling with participating in too many activities or AP classes, especially as they get older,” said Kelley. “They get worried about making mistakes and struggle when they get something wrong. Teachers are given information to help them understand how to identify when high performing students may be feeling this way and to give them the tools they need to have a healthy view of academic and life balance. The gifted department also understands mental health and can help deal with issues that stem from the pressures these students put on themselves.”

Proactively, the mental health professionals in the district are teaching all students healthy coping strategies to use as symptoms of depression or anxiety arise. The district trains teachers to identify students who may have mental health or behavioral issues. They collaborate with counselors regularly to identify red flags and the students who may need support – referring them directly to school counselors. If situations need to be dealt with outside of school, students are connected with external counseling services.

If parents are concerned about mental health issues in their children, they can seek resources from the school. Counselors will help parents understand if the issues are school-based or if the student should seek outside help.

To learn more or to ask questions, parents can reach out to Lisa Kelley at kellyL@gjps.com.