Add mental health to reading, writing and arithmetic for students returning to school this fall.
Two years of pandemic-affected school attendance and this year's tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has put mental health in the spotlight for everyone, especially those who work with students and young adults.
Several special programs and training focusing on mental health for those age groups are being offered locally this year and more are being planned.
This week, the National Alliance of Mental Health, with a grant from the Henry County chapter, is offering a community seminar aimed at sharing information and resources with local families. NAMI also will hold an eight-week class through the fall to work privately with families working through mental health issues.
"We're trying to help families figure out what to do next and keep their loved one working toward recovery," said Angela Gallagher, NAMI's Greater Mississippi Valley executive director, which covers an eight-county region including Henry. "Working your way through the health care system can be a daunting task."
The county's Regional Office of Education also received a grant for a mental health program it plans to initiate in partnership with the county health department for Kewanee and Wethersfield schools. Regional Supt. Angela Zarvell said details of that program will be announced soon.
And the Kewanee Police Department recently partnered with Kewanee Dist. 229 schools to have an armed officer patrol attendance centers to ensure a quick response in an emergency -- but also so officers can make connections with struggling kids before they choose violent recourse.
Gallagher said the first step is simply to connect families to resources, which is a more challenging task in rural areas, where economic and access issues are more pronounced.
The first part of NAMI's grant-funded outreach is its Family and Friends Seminar, which will be offered free to anyone at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Blackhawk College's Community Education Center, 404 E. Third St. Topics include understanding diagnoses, treatment and recovery, effective communication strategies, the importance of self-care and crisis preparation strategies. You can register here.
The second part of the program will be more private and specific for individual families facing serious mental-health struggles. The free, eight-week class will be held on Thursdays starting Sept. 15 and participants will be chosen by NAMI leaders.
"That is closed and you have to qualify to be in the class," Gallagher said. "That's part of the trust-building that takes place in the class -- everybody's there for the same reason."
She said statistics are showing an increase in bipolar, anxiety and personality disorders among children and young adults. The 2021 Mood Disorder Survey, conducted by the Harris Poll, found "Younger adults (18–34) experience greater concerns about the judgment and stigma they may experience from seeking out treatment. When they do seek out treatment, they have greater difficulty in accessing affordable, professional care."
Gallagher said three-quarters of mental illnesses "present" by time a person reaches age 25. Half are evident by age 14.
"The suicide rate for the last 10 years has kind of been in an epidemic stage," she said. "The pandemic hasn't been kind to us and suicide rates continue to increase. Those issues really point back to the use of social media (and the fact that) young adults need to be with their peers."
In addition to virtual support for struggling families, she said NAMI is preparing to launch a program aimed at even younger children and parents.
She also is touting the new national mental health hotline, which can be reached by dialing 988."Everyone will be connected through 988," she said. "Trained people who understand mental health will be on those lines. Sometimes, people just need to talk to somebody."
David Harris, a Henry County Mental Health Alliance board member, said the local group has expanded its membership and continues to turn the tide on the local mental health conversation. He said the Alliance has worked to not only increase awareness, but provide real training and access to services.
"Part of our goal is education," he said, "not just understanding mental illness but most importantly having knowledge and skills to handle difficult situations effectively. So many crisis situations could be avoided if people had those effective interpersonal skills."
The alliance has in the past few years provided anti-bullying training at area schools and currently is working on a program aimed at elementary students.
"It was about becoming 'resilient' and handling the difficult people and things in your life," he said. "And, guess what? Being resilient is a quality and skill needed to handle the pandemic and actually to be successful in life."
The Alliance is currently planning an area-wide seminar on mental health for 2023 that will be offered to the public, including professionals, family members, first responders and anyone experiencing mental health issues. It plans to release the results of a community mental health "needs evaluation" this fall.
This article originally appeared on Star Courier: Mental health in spotlight as Henry County students return to school