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As Iowa Begins Mental Health Training In Schools, Some Ask If It's Enough

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Natalie Krebs/IPR
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Storm Lake District teachers participate in an activity for Youth Mental Health First Aid. The course teaches educators how to spot mental illness in kids and how to get them help.

Schools are often on the forefront in spotting mental health issues in children. But historically educators have received little training in this area. In Iowa, legislators have set aside $2 million to expand mental health training in schools. But when nearly a quarter of kids are estimated to have a psychiatric disorder, some people want the state to do more.

Just before the start of the school year in Storm Lake, several dozen teachers filled the round tables at the high school’s library. They’re learning a catchy phrase, sung like a cheer, to remember how to spot mental illness in their students.

"Assess for risk of suicide or harm."

Youth Mental Health First Aid is an eight-hour crash course focused on how to identify symptoms of mental illnesses, where to get help and even what to say to a student in crisis. 

Trainer Marni Moody lead an activity where she listed common responses from teachers and wrote them on a whiteboard to determine whether they're helpful -- or not, like the phrase "calm down."

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Credit Natalie Krebs/IPR
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Youth Mental Health First Aid trainer Kim Bodholdt is one of two trainers hired by the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency using state funding specifically dedicated to children's mental health needs.

"Calm down. Helpful or not helpful?" Moody asked.

"Not helpful," the class replied.

"In the history of the world, has anyone calmed down after being told to calm down?" Moody said laughing with the room full of teachers in the high school's library.

Thanks to state funding, Youth Mental Health First Aid is offered in Storm Lake and many other Iowa schools for the first time.

Jeff Herzberg, the chief administrator for the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency said the state dollars mean the one-day program is now available to its 39 school districts.

We have 15 schools who have requested training already, that we've got on the calendar up through March," Herzberg said. "And you know, more gets added to that calendar everyday, almost, it seems."

Storm Lake Superintendent Stacey Cole said she signed up right away. Her district was the first to get the training in the Prairie Lakes AEA.

"We have a lot of teachers that tell us that they see more and more students come through our front doors with more and more mental health needs," she said.

About 30 or 40 staff members are taking the class, Cole said.

One of them was fourth grade teacher Kathy McCabe.

"I've actually had three students tell me that they thought about committing suicide," she said.

McCabe who has taught for four decades, said students today face more social and academic pressures. The training course helped her rethink old habits.

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Credit Natalie Krebs/IPR
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Storm Lake Superintendent Stacey Cole says many teachers have told her that they have to deal with more student mental health issues. Storm also brought Youth Mental Health Aid to the Fort Dodge School District, where she previously worked, using a grant.

"One thing that really stuck out with me was not to give advice," she said. "I'm a mother of four. I'm a grandmother. I've taught for several years and it's just kind of my motherly instinct."

Storm Lake also has a high immigrant population. English Language Learner Coach Abby Green said their background adds challenges.

"We have students who are both immigrants and refugees and have experienced trauma in leaving family and traveling through some extreme conditions," Green said.

Jennifer Ulie-Wells is a former teacher who founded Please Pass the Love, a non-profit based in Des Moines that helps schools find mental health support. She said the course is helpful because most teachers don’t get any mental health training.

"Like if negative was an answer, like not just zero percent, but like negative 50 percent," Ulie-Wells said.

Still, Ulie-Wells said “one and done” trainings often are based on getting kids outside help, which is limited – especially in rural areas.

According to a survey last year by the Iowa State Education Association and Please Pass the Love of nearly 400 Iowa public and private schools, less than half list mental health resources on their websites. And just 20 percent have a mental health action plan.

"We also need to be coming up with more complex legislation, a greater more comprehensive system of care so that young people and their families have access to resources, schools are better equipped to work with these young people," Ulie-Wells said.

Youth Mental Health First Aid isn’t the only training available for schools. The legislature also has required schools to provide one hour of suicide prevention training annually.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's health reporter.  Funding for her work is provided by the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation.