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Youth mental health addressed with trainings, outreach – and even a mobile phone app
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All educators and staff with the Gainesville City School System were trained in providing “mental health first aid” to youth in crisis in January.

The Georgia Crisis and Access Line is meeting struggling students where they are: their cellphones.

A new mobile app, known as GCAL, allows those in need to communicate with professionals via text message or online chat in addition to the traditional phone call to the crisis hotline, which offers free and confidential access to services for mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Sarah Bell, deputy superintendent with Gainesville City Schools, said anxiety and depression are the primary challenges she sees in students.

“The app is a great initiative as far as dealing with crisis,” she said.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin developing by age 14.

The app is just one new tool in a burgeoning collaborative approach that brings together the school system, health agencies and local nonprofits to educate, train and raise awareness about mental illness among Hall County’s youth.

The school system, for example, has conducted youth mental health first aid training for middle and high school teachers, paraprofessionals, school resource officers and administrative personnel, about 250 in all.

Bell said the training helps educators learn to interact with and identify at-risk students, and refer them to the proper services to address their needs.

“This side of it is more of a proactive approach,” she added.

It’s one of three goals, along with access to services and education, for the collaborative training.

The training was “multi-faceted,” Bell said, with videos of survivors of suicide attempts, a synopsis of symptoms and behaviors common in youth experiencing mental or behavioral health problems and a role-playing script to practice communicating with students in need.

The Mayo Clinic lists precipitating factors to depression and anxiety as low self-esteem, tiredness and loss of energy, use of illicit drugs and behavioral traits such as anger, trouble concentrating and loss of interest in hobbies. Common contributing factors to these issues can be school performance, status among their peers and family home life.  

Bell said some next steps for Gainesville Schools include providing mental health first aid training for adults and families.

It’s part of larger wraparound initiative Gainesville school officials have focused on in the last year, which seeks to expand mental health counseling, add a clothing closet or food pantry inside schools and develop new academic mentors.  

Avita Community Partners, headquartered in Flowery Branch, is using grant funding to provide mental health awareness training.

Just last month, Avita hosted crisis intervention training for police officers, for example.

And several sessions open to the public on mental health first aid and suicide prevention will be available in the coming months.

Making them convenient and available has prompted Avita to work with local school systems and the Northeast Georgia Health System to deliver training to as many professionals as possible.

“It’s the overall collaboration that’s really making a difference,” said Cindy Levi, Avita’s chief executive officer.

Levi added that the ability to “identify risk and warning signs for youth,” as well as adults, helps ensure their access to available resources and services.

“There’s no sense in working alone when we’re working toward the same end,” Levi said.

Adam Raulerson, the business development manager at Laurelwood Hospital, a part of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, agreed that collaboration is more critical than ever.

Laurelwood includes an adolescent unit for 12- to 17-year-old boys and girls in its inpatient behavioral health facility, which works to stabilize and treat those with mental illness and substance addictions.

Raulerson said today’s youth face new and challenging mental health struggles, such as cyberbullying on social media, which has prompted concerns about youth suicide.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 is suicide.

It makes the GCAL mobile phone app more pertinent as a way to reach young people in crisis.

The phone can be a great resource, Raulerson said, but like all things, it’s best used in moderation.

“I think across the nation you’re seeing an increase (in cyberbullying), and I think we certainly are seeing that in our community,” Raulerson said.

The National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that about 21 percent of American students ages 12-18 experienced bullying in some form in 2015.

And a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that an estimated 14.9 percent of high school students were electronically bullied in the past 12 months prior to the survey.

“It’s one thing we’ve identified as a trend,” Raulerson said.


Georgia Crisis and Access Line

Hotline: 800-715-4225 available at any hour

Mobile app: GCAL


Upcoming training sessions


All sessions are provided free from Avita Community Partners. Registration is required by calling 678-513-5700


Mental health first aid

When: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April 26

Where: 4331 Thurmon Tanner Parkway, Flowery Branch


Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training

A two-day interactive workshop in suicide first aid

When: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Aug. 29-30, Sept. 19-20

Where: 4331 Thurmon Tanner Parkway, Flowery Branch


Assessing and Managing Suicide Risk

When: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April 5, May 7, June 7

Where: 4331 Thurmon Tanner Parkway, Flowery Branch


Regional events