With the help of a $2 million grant, Hall County Schools has hired three new employees and started mental wellness training for staff and students.
In October, the school district announced it received the grant, titled Project Aware, aimed toward increasing awareness and training on mental health issues among school-aged children. The school district will receive the funding in yearly installments of $400,000. In the following five years, the district aims to develop school-based mental health programs and training.
The district staff have already received “awareness training” which highlights "typical" adolescent development, common adolescent mental health disorders, trauma, suicide and ends with resiliency, Tamara Etterling, Hall County director of student services said. Resiliency is defined by psychologists as the ability to recover or adjust easily to change. Healthy habits such as adequate sleep, exercise and eating well build resilience, according to Psychology Today.
The next training being rolled out is skills training, focused on how to foster a culture of resiliency and skills for resiliency.
“We plan to increase awareness and resilience in both staff and students. We will be investing in the adults that are serving our students,” Etterling said.
Etterling said mental health and suicide prevention training has already begun. One of the trainings, Sources of Strength, which is a student-led suicide prevention program,has started in secondary schools.
“The goal of Sources of Strength is to connect students with a trusted adult and to run monthly campaigns that help us identify where we get our strength from during difficult times,” Etterling said. “Sources of Strength will require adult training to then bring students on board to lead and support each other.”
West Hall Middle School eighth grader, Aiden Rainey is involved in the Sources of Strength training. Rainey and about 12 other students participate in weekly meetings with staff about how to bring positivity to classrooms and what support students need, he said.
So far, the group has focused on brainstorming but recently posted sticky notes including positive messages across the school campus. Rainey said the group thought it was an easy, visual way to help someone who is experiencing a bad day or anxiety. In addition, each student in the group recorded a skit on ways to reduce anxiety and depression.
Rainey focused on using hobbies to ease anxiety. When he faces anxiety, Rainey said he plays basketball or pets his dogs to relax himself.
The videos were played for the student body in their respective classrooms.
“This year more than others students are facing anxiety and depression just because of limits like the pandemic and learning,” Rainey said. “This group is nice because we can talk about how to help the students like me and my friends.”
Using the Project Aware grant funds, Hall County hired an interconnected systems framework coordinator and a tier 3 mental health coordinator.
The framework coordinator job responsibilities include providing technical assistance to school mental health coordinators and working with parents, teachers and the community to spark conversations on mental wellness. The job also includes collecting district-wide mental health data and coordinating mental health training for the district.
The tier 3 mental health coordinator role entails coordinating with local agencies and private resourcing which can offer support to at-risk students and families. They were required to have the ability to de-escalate students in “social, emotional and behavioral crisis” and provide ongoing coaching for family members. The coordinator must maintain ongoing data and records and explore potential funding sources for student support.
The district has also partnered with Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, to receive guidance on handling recent crises in the local community and schools, Etterling said.
Recent crises include the deaths of two Flowery Branch students and six people killed in the Jan. 28 nitrogen leak at Foundation Food Group.
While training has started among staff, the district will also focus on ways students can support themselves and others, said Interconnected Systems Framework Coordinator Sarah Johansson.
Another initiative is finding ways to combat the stigma against mental illness, Johansson said. The team gathered through the grant plans to host community events with families to discuss the importance of mental wellness.
“Young people are facing more challenges than ever. We are also seeing an uptick in anxiety and depression across age levels with COVID-19. Increasing protective and resilience factors for students of every age is a high priority,” Johansson said.