School-Community Partnerships for Better Youth Mental Health

By Erica Perkins

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world" – Nelson Mandela.

This well-known quote by Nelson Mandela holds an immense amount of truth. We are empowered, humbled, and connected through education.

Northeast Kingdom Human Services (NKHS) believes education is one of the greatest tools to prevent suicide. NKHS is passionate about teaching as many community members as possible to work together to combat this mental health crisis. It's more than recognizing the signs. The power to make a difference comes when we educate our communities on embracing, supporting and modeling acceptance. It's about increasing the discussions and making mental health a regular conversation topic. Mental health agencies need help doing this work. It's a disservice to our communities if we attempt it alone.

Suicide and self-harm are challenging topics. There is no denying this. But these topics will always remain hard if we don't learn to talk about the hard things. The CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report 2011-2021 confirms what we see with our children and young community members. Kids are struggling with their mental health. Most notably, over 40% of the high school-aged survey responders experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness, and over 20% seriously considered attempting suicide. The percentages show an increase year after year.

The data shows that youth who experience suicidal thoughts don't typically feel comfortable going to an adult with their feelings. They would much rather reach out to a peer for support. Bringing mental health programs to schools equips kids with the tools to support each other. Providing this education lays foundational thinking about what it means to be a good community member and how healthy relationships help manage mental health.

What can we do together?

Schools have recognized the need for additional support for their students, staff and community around mental health and suicidal ideation, and NKHS has responded to the increased requests for help. NKHS engages with area Northeast Kingdom schools to facilitate different training programs based on the audience's age group. Also, NKHS provides informational packets for schools. These packets include Model School Guide for Suicide Prevention, Suicide Prevention Resource Flyer, 988 pocket cards, LBGTQ+ Poster with tear-off numbers for support, Quick Series Teen Suicide Prevention Pocket Guides, Children, Teens, a Suicidal Loss Book and "You are Enough" bags.

NKHS works on grant and private funding to provide free or low-cost training for the participant. Training is open to all organizations and community members.

NKHS brings mental health educational programming to kids from pre-k to 5th grade with Gizmo’s Pawsome Guide to Mental Health. This program teaches what it means to be mentally healthy. An NKHS employee visits a classroom by invitation from the school and shares the story of Gizmo, a therapy dog, and how he helps kids recognize their feelings and how to manage them.

It's Real, a program developed by American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), addresses middle school, high school and college-age students. The program "raises awareness about mental health issues, how to start a conversation about mental health, the importance of self-care, and how to reach out for help."

For college-age students, teachers, faculty, parents and caregivers, NKHS offers QPR Gatekeeper Training and an introductory guide to raise awareness, dispel myths and misconceptions, and teach three key skills that can help save a life.

From March 2022 - March 2023, NKHS conducted 18 QPR training sessions where 186 participants included community members, school staff and NVU-Lyndon.

What one Northeast Kingdom school is saying:

"As we continue to see an increased need for mental health support within our schools, we have partnered with our local agencies to implement a collaborative approach for our students. Although we cover mental health awareness and social-emotional learning in various ways, we wanted to add additional resources.

This year we partnered with Northeast Kingdom Human Services, and they were able to come in and work with our middle school students through the "It's Real" program. During this time, students learned to identify within themselves and others the signs when their mental health may need more attention, reduce the stigma around mental health support, and develop strategies to support and maintain their mental health. Students also learned what to do if they or someone they know is struggling.

We introduced the Gizmo's Pawsome guide to the mental health program for the younger grades. Through this program, students meet a therapy dog named Gizmo, who teaches them the importance of taking care of their mental health the same way they care for their physical health. In addition, students learned strategies they could do to maintain their mental health and techniques they can use when they are having a hard time, including who they can talk to.

In addition to our work with the students, the staff at Millers Run also participated in QPR (Question Persuade Refer) training facilitated by NKHS. This training covered; How to Question, Persuade and Refer someone who may be suicidal, how to get help for yourself or learn more about preventing suicide, the common causes of suicidal behavior, the warning signs of suicide and how to get help for someone in crisis.

Having everyone within our school community receive this information is critical in working together to help improve mental health awareness and support one another. We are incredibly thankful for the support of NKHS and look forward to more collaboration in the future!" -- Devin Daniell, Miller’s Run Counselor/Clinician.

Mental Health is a Community Effort

Upstream prevention efforts get ahead of mental health issues. But, to succeed, we need that full circle of support where community members of all ages feel comfortable having honest conversations and shining light on this topic.

NKHS also participates in the Zero Suicide Initiative, a project developed by the VT Suicide Prevention Center and funded by a VT Department of Mental Health grant. Jade, a local teen, lost a family member and her close friend, Norah, to suicide which compelled her to support efforts around suicide awareness and prevention. Jade recently presented the NKHS Zero Suicide Team with a donation to help promote training and awareness around youth mental health throughout the Northeast Kingdom (NEK).

Conversations and Commitment

Change can be slow, but progress is progress, and we need to keep working toward Zero Suicide. Inviting and engaging in conversations around mental health with school-age kids can only help create normalcy and the space for support. NKHS is encouraged by the interest from Northeast Kingdom schools and community members for education surrounding mental health care and suicide awareness and prevention.

We look forward to the day when our young community members are no longer in crisis.

Need to talk to someone? Call or Text 988

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week. NKHS and the Lifeline are committed to improving crisis services and advancing suicide prevention by empowering individuals, promoting professional best practices, and building awareness. When people call, text or chat at 988, trained counselors listen, understand how your problems affect you, provide support and connect you to necessary resources.