AUSTIN (KXAN) — Wednesday, in a gymnasium on a campus of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Austin, a group of panelists who don’t always work side by side exchanged thoughts on the most pressing challenges and useful solutions they’ve seen related to the mental health of students.

The panelists included Misti Potter (CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin Area), Tracy Spinner (Director of Comprehensive Health and Mental Health with AISD), Meagan Butler (Middle School, Secondary Counseling Coordinator for AISD), Shakira Hamilton Adams (High School, Secondary Counseling Coordinator for AISD), Grae Baker (Head of School for Austin Montessori School), Karen Ranus (Executive Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Central Texas), and Officer Jeremy Bohannon (Austin Police Officer who works with Boys and Girls Clubs and the Police Athletic League).

They were gathered together for a community conversation as part of KXAN’s Save our Students’ initiative on student wellness and safety. About 1 in 5 children ages 13-18 have or will have a serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

KXAN’s Jim Spencer, Erin Cargile, and Josh Hinkle shared details of KXAN’s reporting on mental health with these panelists, asking them to respond with their thoughts and experiences.

Mental health training and resources

Tracy Spinner explained that all AISD employees are trained in suicide prevention. Spinner noted that the district is working to make sure employees are aware of and use the resources offered through AISD’s 45 school mental health centers. She explained that these centers can help to work with teachers in small groups to train them in observing the signs of someone in need of help.

Spinner added that she is “proud” to hear that Round Rock ISD is starting their own school mental health centers, emulating the ones Austin has. These mental health centers, which are staffed by licensed therapists, have improved students academics, attendance, and behavior, Spinner said.

KXAN hosts a panel on mental health safety at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin area. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard)

Misti Potter noted that with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin Area, all of the staff there go through suicide prevention training too. Potter said that in after school care, because the environment is not as controlled as the one students see in schools, which means staff members can have a unique vantage point into students’ mental health.

Attending the panel Wednesday was Jayne Palmer, Central Texas area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She explained that she has heard from students in schools that they don’t know who to talk to or that they don’t have an adult in their lives who they feel comfortable having a conversation with about suicidal thoughts.

“We did some training with some of the school nurses in Round Rock ISD, as well as the bus drivers in Round Rock ISD, and that was really effective with the faculty,” Palmer said, noting that its important for both kids and for their educators to know about suicide warning signs and prevention. Palmer added that the programs AFSP offers, such as the ones they worked on with Round Rock ISD, are free — schools who are interested can reach out for more information.

Training for schools and after school care aren’t the only resources needed to better support students, Karen Ranus of NAMI Central Texas.

“I think so often we leave parents out of the equation and I think it’s important we talk about that,” Ranus said.

She spoke from her own experience, having a daughter who attempted suicide.

“I know that we tiptoed around the things we were seeing because there’s a lot of shame around mental health,” Ranus explained.

“We’re still not at a place in our community where we see mental health as the health issue that it is,” she said.

Shakira Hamilton Adams noted that in the conversation about getting parents more involved in their students’ mental health, there’s something simple yet powerful parents can do.

Many parents will ask their kid how their day was at school, and many kids reply back “it was good,” Hamilton Adams said.

KXAN hosted a live panel discussion about student safety and wellness at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin Area. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“In order to build that relational capacity, go deeper,” she said. Hamilton Adams encouraged parents to go deeper and to ask their kids what was good or not good about their day, to probe about what they’re feeling.

“As a parent, go out there on a limb and be willing to talk about your situation,” Hamilton Adams advised. “We need to give children a different lens to see us from.”

Ranus added in some more advice, encouraging parents to help their kids to see value in taking care of themselves.

Ranus encourages parents to ask their kids, “what is it that you like to do just for you?”

“Encourage that and nourish that, even if it’s goofy,” Ranus said. ” We have to create and invite them into the joy of living each day. “

A law enforcement perspective

Officer Jeremy Bohannon explained that playing sports with kids in the Austin community taught him that it’s important for kids to have social interaction with people — whether that’s teachers, coaches, or police officers.

“Sports really help with that developmental aspect of being a team- player” he said.

Bohannon said that it’s a parent’s responsibility to know what their kids are doing and to ” make the kids understand that they are worthy, they are special.”

As an officer, Bohannon knows there are hurdles he faces in trying to reach kids just because of his job. He explained that for many kids, when they see officers in uniform, they become fearful.

“First thing we have to do is to really break down that barrier and connect with them,” he said. “And we do that through sports, and making sure that they know that we’re here and that we care about them.”

He makes a point of making it clear to kids that he is there to help them, not to arrest or punish them.

When it comes to mental health, Bohannon says, “We get a lot of training, but we get a lot of practical practice with it, every single day we’re dealing with mental health issues.”

“I work patrol every once in a while, and every single time I work patrol I probably take about 3 or 4 mental health calls,” he explained.

Bohannon said that whether it’s a kid or an adult who he’s responding to for a mental health call, he has to treat it as though it could be a moment of crisis for that person.

“We have to do everything we possibly can to show them we support them,” he said.

Bohannon said that for parents or adults who are supporting youth through a mental health crisis, it’s crucial to not be afraid to ask the tough questions.

“Like, ‘do you want to hurt yourself?’ ‘How are you going to hurt yourself?’ ‘What are your plans?’ Because those things are important, not just for that one moment, but for the next time so then you know what kinds of things that they’re thinking about or what’s going on in their heads,” he explained.

Developing relationships

Meagan Butler with AISD explained that the district tried to make sure that students feel connected: to their peers, to clubs, and to their interests.

“In Austin ISD it’s not just about stopping the hard things from happening, we really look at mental health as a spectrum, ranging from mental illness to wellness,” she explained.

Counselors, she said, try to regularly check in with students to find out where they are on that spectrum and shift them toward wellness.

“That’s what school counseling is, relationships,” Butler said.

“The two words that you have heard — and we’re not even done this evening — the most are: connection and relationship,” said Grae Baker of Austin Montessori School. “You can apply that whether we’re talking about police officers, school resource officers, bus drivers, families, parents; that is the secret sauce, that is the key.”

Baker said it’s important to understand that mental health issues are not just an issue for the educational community, but for society as a whole.

“We’re opening ourselves up to remove the stigma from these things and understanding them for what they actually are, that’s how you prevent getting to crisis,” he said.

This community conversation was the third in-person event KXAN has hosted for the Save our Students initiative to talk with people in the community about what they’re experiencing when it comes to the mental health and safety of their children. KXAN also hosted a panel at Stony Point High School earlier this week and set up a “Mobile Newsroom” at the Round Rock Express game earlier this month.