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MCPS educators meet for health summit

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With the start of the spring semester just a day away, Maury County Public Schools' counselors, special education instructors and nurses gathered at Spring Hill High School's auditorium Wednesday for a special summit on identifying and helping students with mental health issues.

The all day event entitled, "Heading in the Right Direction: An Investment in Mental Health," coordinated by Chattanooga's National Center for Health Issues, included nationally recognized guest speakers ans was attended by 325 Maury County Educators. Tip Frank held a discussion on helping children and teens deal with anxiety and Tara Brown discussed research on student resiliency.

"If educators are excited about what they do and enjoy being there, they feel appreciated. That gets passed on to the students, and they feel appreciated," MCPS Supervisor of Counseling and Mental Health Robb Killen said before the start of Wednesday's summit. "It just makes for a better school environment in general, it's just fantastic. We are headed in the right direction as far as acknowledging it and getting resources in the hands of those who deal with students."

The meeting served as an initial step in helping those who work most with Maury County's students better assist their pupils in times of distress. The effort began a year ago, when the school board approved the creation of a new position now held by Killen to oversee mental health in the county and unify its counselors and educators.

"Teachers have to deal with the mental health of students more often than people realize, and it is important that we have strategies as teachers that help us understand," Jackie Goad, a special education teacher for hearing impaired students throughout the county, said. "What bothers me most is the suicide rate of teenagers going up, up and up. As a teacher, that is very alarming and concerning to me."

During his discussion of suicide, Frank said current numbers show that 12 percent of all United States teenagers will have suicidal thoughts and 2 percent of all elementary school students will have those thoughts. That is the equivalent of about one elementary student per classroom.

An estimated 5,000 young people will commit suicide in 2017 and another 125,000 will attempt it.

"I think that all teachers need to concentrate on the mental health of students, and I think we do that," Goad said.

Both Goad and her colleague Laura McDaniel said they feel some students are falling through the cracks of the school district.

"Maury County has become more of a transient county, and I think the support at home has declined," Goad said. "When that happens, students feel like they have nowhere to turn, and if their teachers are not supportive, they feel like they are all alone. There are students that need help, and the more training we can do on mental health, the better."

During the first half of the summit, educators reviewed the common triggers of depression, its most common signs and how to detect if a student might be suffering from the mental illness.

Killen previously confirmed that at least one student was counseled from harming themselves during the recent fall semester using the school district's newly revised procedures and the STOPit app, which allows students to anonymously communicate with district educators.

"You are the first responders to point them in the right direction," Frank, a licensed professional counselor and the author of The Magic Coloring Book of Feelings, The Handbook for Helping Kids with Anxiety and Stress and more, told the educators during the presentation. "You can get people moving."

Killen said as national concerns for teen suicide increase, the school district has had success quelling behavioral issues within the county.

Comparing the number of reports of bullying in the months of August through November in 2015 with the same months in 2016, Killen said those incidents are down 28 percent, with 57 recorded in 2015 and 16 in 2016.

When reviewing bullying, threats, and harassment combined, the last semester has seen a decrease of 81 percent, moving from 120 reported cases during August through November in 2015 to 98 cases during the same period in 2016.

Maury County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chris Marczak welcomed the educators back for another semester and commended Killen, Coordinated School Health Coordinator Laurie Stanton and Supervisor of Special Education Lisa Ventura for putting mental health at the forefront.

"We need to start tackling the mental health issues in our community," Marczak said. "A lot of the incidents that we see happening across the United States, a lot of experts point to mental health, and it's the elephant in the room. It's the thing that nobody wants to talk about, but it is something we have to talk about."

Marczak said if the school district wants its Seven Keys to College and Career Readiness to come to fruition for all students, the school district will have to address the mental health needs of the kids who are struggling.

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