School professionals discuss need for mental health services

Friday marks 19 years since Columbine and nine weeks since the Parkland shooting. And while shooters in both cases had histories of mental illness, health advocates say it’s a common misconception that most mentally ill people are violent. That isn’t true, but what is true is that more kids need more help.

“As many as 10 percent of children have a serious emotional disturbance, which contributes to school failure and other serious problems,” said Deborah Hartel, deputy commissioner for Integrated Health Services for the NJ Department of Health. “The onset of a major mental illness may occur as early as seven to 11 years old.”

New Jersey’s Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma gathered Thursday to recognize school-based professionals who’ve excelled at trying to promote a proactive approach to helping students with mental illness. But they first acknowledged the challenges.

Grace Hu Travinsky’s daughter is schizophrenic. She says education is critical to helping kids, families and educators cope.

“Everybody cares, but it’s people at the top, the legislators, they need to open up their eyes. To me, mental illness is the epidemic of the 21st century,” said Travinsky, who serves on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness NJ.

“It helps to fight the stigma and discrimination, because so often one of the real problems is that the children and the parents are often embarrassed to admit that there’s a problem,” said Debra Wentz, president and CEO of New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies.

“Mental illness is a biologically-based brain disease that is very treatable, and there’s help out there,” said Lorrie Baumann, director of school education programs with the National Alliance on Mental Illness NJ.

The council today recognized school districts including Carteret, Ramsey and Pascack Valley High School for innovative programs that help link kids to mental health services and teach a stigma-free, compassionate approach to treatment. Danielle Cooper’s award is for helping to train 250 school nurses.

“Students will come in with suicidal ideations. Students will come in with concerns around depression, anxiety,” said Cooper, manager of the school health leadership program at the New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing.

The New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing program offered an eight-hour course on how to recognize symptoms and react properly to kids’ mental problems.

“The nurse is able to use the action plan and the steps that they learned with their youth mental health first aid training and be able to defuse the situation and put interventions in place,” she said.

Cooper says the school nurse training program should be available statewide, and she’s reaching out to lawmakers for support and sponsorship.

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