Miami-Dade Schools

Miami-Dade teachers to receive mental illness training

 

Starting in March, middle school and high school teachers will be trained to look out for, and report, early signs of mentally ill behavior among their students.

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

Hundreds of Miami-Dade teachers, lunch ladies and janitors will soon be trained to spot symptoms of mental illness among teenagers in an effort to help prevent the kind of schoolhouse massacre that occurred last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Starting in March, the school district will begin training each of its middle school and high school teachers to identify early-warning signs of mental illness through a program called “Typical or Troubled?” The program was created by the American Psychiatric Foundation as a response to the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado 14 years ago, and will be provided at no cost to the district.

“Teachers have told us they see these problems every day, but they don’t know what to do, or if these are typical behaviors or signs of trouble,” said Colleen Reilly, director of Typical or Troubled? “In the wake of Sandy Hook, this needs to be a national curriculum and a part of every school.”

The training, to be administered by mental-health professionals to about 110 Miami-Dade school psychologists and counselors — who in turn will train other district employees — explains that symptoms of mental illness can include sleeping through class, rambling, bizarre writings and thoughts, and extreme risk-taking. Trainers also make sure employees know how to refer these students for a mental-health screening.

That’s perhaps a more subtle measure to address safety concerns than the ongoing conversation of whether to place a police officer at every Miami-Dade public school. But it fits into an overall effort to address school safety and youth violence endorsed by Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who talks about needing “mental detectors, not metal detectors.”

“This is a basic safety net,” he said.

Reilly said 20 percent of children age 9 to 17 have a diagnosable mental illness, and about half of those are considered serious. Most of these children begin exhibiting symptoms by the time they are 14.

Catching those symptoms becomes even more important in Florida, where state officials recently testified at a state House committee hearing that two-thirds of mentally ill people go untreated, according to The Palm Beach Post.

And consider that Miami-Dade has a mentally ill population equal to 9.1 percent, considered “the largest percentage of people with [mental illness] of any urban community in the Unites States,” according to a 2007 county task force on mental health. Over the past five years, Miami-Dade schools have seen a doubling in the number of involuntary psychiatric evaluations of students under the state’s Baker Act.

Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, a co-chairman of the 2007 task force and a member of the American Psychiatric Foundation board, said the program would help treat kids rather than “push them down the line until they become somebody else’s problem.”

“The earlier you treat somebody with mental illness, the better the prognosis,” he said. “Why do we want to wait for an adolescent to become an adult with a serious mental illness?”

Leifman said he brought the program to Carvalho’s attention as a means of addressing mental illness, violent and nonviolent, just before a gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary last month and killed 20 children and six adults. The shooting set off a debate not only about gun control but mental-health services, and President Barack Obama has called for increased mental-health training at schools.

There remain some skeptics.

Karen Aronowitz, president of United Teachers of Dade, lauded Leifman and Carvalho for trying to address mental-health issues. But she said the program was not a complete solution, and would not make up for poor funding of school psychologists and counselors by the state — though funding for Miami-Dade’s school counselors and psychologists has increased over the past two years, according to figures provided by the district.

“Trumpeting the start of yet another program is only noise unless appropriate and increased funding and education is provided by our state,” Aronowitz said.

Reilly said the program was created so that it would not be a burden on teachers, or make them liable for students whose problems they do not recognize.

“Our goal in this partnership is not to ask them [teachers] to do any kind of diagnosis, or to be a mental-health professional . . .” she said. “We’re asking them to learn about and notice the warning signs, and if they see a problem to refer them to someone who has a better grasp.”

As for a possibility that teachers might refer a student who isn’t ill, Leifman said that’s a possibility but not one people should be concerned about.

“The worst that would happen is they’ll get evaluated,” he said. “If there’s nothing there, then there’s nothing there. I’d rather be more conscious than what we’ve done in the past, which is very little.”

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