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Shedding light on students’ mental health issues

It has often been called a silent epidemic.

The symptoms are not always visible, and it can sometimes take years before a diagnosis is finally made.

According to a recent report from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in a given year, up to one-in-five children ages 13-18 show signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder—that is roughly 20 percent of youth ages 13-18.

An alarming finding from this study reveals that nearly 80 percent of children who need mental health services won’t get access to these services.

More alarming yet is the finding that one-half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14.

Mental illness, then, is not merely a disorder that afflicts adults.

Left untreated, the problems associated with undiagnosed disorders show up in the classroom often in the form of chronic absence, low achievement, and, or, disruptive behavior.

In recent years, school systems nationwide have been tasked increasingly with seeking more effective ways to identify and screen students in need of mental health services early.

Sometimes, unfortunately, it takes a particularly tragic event to draw attention to these important issues surrounding mental health.

Take, for example, the mass school shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in Dec. 2012.

Twenty children and seven adults lost their lives in the aftermath.

According to an extensive police investigation of the shooting, reports concluded that the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had “significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others.”

It was the deadliest mass school shooting in U.S. history—one that sent shock waves throughout the Newtown community and the entire nation—prompting more discourse on gun control and mental health issues than ever before.

In response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tragedy, a federal initiative was established by President Barack Obama’s Administration to fund schools with a comprehensive mental health program to effectively combat mental health issues among students.

The federal initiative was called Project Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education (AWARE).

In late 2015, the Anderson County School System was selected by the Tennessee Department of Education to receive the Project AWARE grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and implement the program at the local level.

In all, 60 school districts were selected to participate in the program. Of the 60 school systems, Anderson County was one of three schools in Tennessee chosen to receive the award and was selected to represent the Eastern District of Tennessee.

The total amount of the grant awarded to Anderson County is $2.2 million—the money is disbursed to the school system for each year of the grant instead of the school receiving the full amount the first year of the grant.

Lawrence County in Middle Tennessee and Lauderdale County in West Tennessee were the other two Tennessee school districts selected for the grant.

“The AWARE Program was created with the intent of increasing awareness of mental health and mental health resources, and promoting youth resilience and positive behavioral functioning for Anderson County’s youth,” said Scott Bacon, with the Anderson County Schools Project Aware Program.

Now in its second year of the five-year grant, Project AWARE in Anderson County is still making noteworthy gains in increasing mental health awareness in the community, though the program is still in its infancy, Bacon said.

According to Anderson County Schools Project AWARE Director Kim Guinn, more and more students are beginning to take advantage of the services made available through this program.

Since the program’s inception, Guinn reports she has seen a dramatic increase in the number of students who receive school-based mental health services.

“We did have 77 students in grades K-12 who sought services with a school therapist last year; now we have 177 students taking advantage of those services. We’re getting referrals every other day,” Guinn said.

Guinn attributes this increase in student referrals to the increasing exposure they have had in and outside the classroom to Project AWARE, and learning from school counselors, and educators more about the program and the importance of mental health.

The Anderson County School System’s AWARE program model has been broken down into seven goals: to build infrastructure and integrated systems of support in the community; to increase mental health awareness and outreach services; to increase youth and family engagement; to improve safety and climate, build youth resilience and reduce behavioral incidents; to increase early identification and screening of youth with mental health needs services; to expand continuum of school-based mental health services, and to reduce the number of youth removed from school for discipline issues.

Each of the schools has a school counselor. Middle and high schools have their own counselor, but some of the smaller elementary schools share a counselor, Guinn said.

“This program is all about helping young people and their families,” Bacon added.

Guinn stated the five-year grant is non-renewable, so the school system is working on a way to keep the program sustainable even after funds run out by partnering with other organizations in the community (ex: Allies for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP), Cherokee Health Systems, Alex Haley Farm, and the Rotary Club, to name a few).

Anderson County Schools partnered with Cherokee Health Systems in Oak Ridge in Dec. 2015, in which Cherokee signed a contract with the school system to offer outpatient behavioral services to students.

Guinn said she thinks the school system has enough funds to carry over to a sixth year of funding.

The program continues to expand as AWARE representatives and school counselors have implemented a monthly AWARE topic program for the elementary schools.

Guinn and Bacon met with elementary school counselors at each of the elementary schools last week and established a list of monthly aware topics for the 2017-2018 school year, Bacon said.

Monthly topics for the 2017-2018 school year for Project AWARE are, beginning in August and running through May: Responsibility, Self-Esteem, Resilience, Thankfulness, Friendship, Positive Attitude, Kindness, Self-Care, Effort, and Personal Safety.

For more information on the school system’s Project AWARE grant visit the school system’s website at and go to student services;;, or contact Project AWARE Director Kim Guinn at 865-463-2800, ext. 2825.