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ELKHART, Ind. (AP) — One in five children between the ages of 9 and 17 has a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Yet only 20 percent of those children receive mental health services.
Some children do not receive treatment because adults misinterpret the symptoms as willful disobedience. Others do not seek help because of the stigma attached to mental illness.
"The reality is we need to have different tiers of help and different ways in the door," Bonnie Schrock, Oaklawn's vice president for child and adolescent outpatient services, told The Elkhart Truth (http://bit.ly/1uIOeau ).
The system of care partnership between Oaklawn and Elkhart Community Schools, which puts Oaklawn professionals in local schools to help students access mental health resources, already helps with that — and a new grant will help that initiative grow.
Elkhart Community Schools, in partnership with Oaklawn and Elkhart County Court Services, was awarded $100,000 to train hundreds of school personnel and community members in mental health issues and how to identify a youth in crisis.
The grant is from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as part of President Barack Obama's "Now is the Time" initiative.
Following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Obama announced a plan to better protect America from mass shootings like the ones in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
"We won't be able to stop every violent act, but if there is even one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events, we have a deep obligation, all of us, to try," the president said in a speech.
The plan focuses on rewriting gun laws, making schools safer and increasing access to mental health services.
The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent and the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness. However, the White House argued that recent mass shootings have highlighted how some cases can develop into crisis situations if not properly treated.
That's why the Now is the Time initiative includes $15 million to Project AWARE to provide Mental Health First Aid Training to teachers and others who work with youth.
That money was distributed to 120 organizations nationally, but the $100,000 to the three-way partnership in Elkhart was the only money awarded in Indiana.
Over the next two years, 397 teachers and 100 community members will be trained in the skills necessary to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders.
The process has already started.
Six mental health professionals and educators have already completed a 40-hour course to become Mental Health First Aid instructors, and they have already trained a few dozen community members and booked training for teachers in February.
Bonnie Raine, the system of care coordinator for Oaklawn, said the training asks participants to work through several scenarios involving mental health concerns.
"It really gives opportunities to practice using words that indicate you're listening, and you're listening without judgment," she said. "It gives young people the opportunity to express what they're thinking."
Individuals trained through this grant will learn to:
— Assess for risk of suicide or harm.
— Listen nonjudgmentally.
— Give reassurance and information.
— Encourage appropriate professional help.
— Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
Elkhart Central High School Principal Frank Serge said his school had resources to consult with about mental health issues, like special education personnel or the system of care facilitators, but it is important for teachers to know firsthand what to look for.
"We're a high school of almost 1,800, kind of like a mini community," he said, estimating that more than 300 have mental health problems based on the statistics. "You're going to have some members with some mental illness, and our teachers have to be aware of how to handle that."
Todd Kelly, a behavioral consultant for the school district, said the training empowers students and adults with the right words.
"They often don't have the language to talk about it," he said. "Giving words to talk about it is not just for the students. It's for the teachers."
Raine said teachers are not being asked to become mental health providers — in fact, they will be specifically trained not to take guesses at diagnoses or suggest medications — but they will be trained to intervene early by making a referral to a social worker or system of care facilitator.
"This is one more tool in the kit to assist faculty and staff who don't necessarily have a great understanding of how mental health affects youth," she said. "It is recognizing and valuing the insight of educators in the building."
It's also valuing their relationship to students, said Deb Beehler, the coordinator of special education behavior support and student services.
"Because of the collaboration, it creates a safe, supportive and responsive environment for our children," she said. "If children feel safe they are able to voice their needs. If we have kids reaching out, we'll know how to respond so we don't give them a response that keeps them from reaching out again."
The ultimate goal of the grant is to increase the number of students referred to mental health services.
Through the system of care program, 237 Elkhart students were referred to Oaklawn during the 2013-14 school year — although that number reflects only new referrals, not the total number of students receiving services from Oaklawn or receiving ongoing treatment from other mental health providers.
By increasing the number of referrals, school staff and community members can decrease the number of students struggling with untreated mental health problems.
Although the grant provides funding for only two years — $50,000 each year — leaders hope the program will continue, and they hope the effects will trickle through the community.
Director of Court Services Bob Girard, who works with the Juvenile Detention Center, said about 70 percent of kids that come through the courts are dealing with some sort of mental health problems.
"We tend to see the kids who don't get help, the ones who act out in some way to get themselves into the juvenile justice system," he said. "There are resources available to pay for treatment once kids get involved in the system, but we're involved to try to limit the ones that come in with mental health needs."
Access to mental health care was identified as one of five priorities in the 2012 Community Health Needs Assessment from IU Health Goshen and Elkhart General Hospital. Director of Special Education Mary Jo Sartorius said efforts sustained by the grant can help with that priority.
"Once you reach a child, you can work with them to become self-advocates for the rest of their lives," she said. "That would be my dream."
Oaklawn's Schrock said research shows that the period between when symptoms show and when individuals seek help is 10 years.
"You intervene early to shorten that period, so they haven't developed a lifestyle that is really hard to change," she said. "If you're recognizing it earlier, you're ahead of the game. You're way ahead of the pack."
Information from: The Elkhart Truth, http://www.elkharttruth.com
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