ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Six panelists sat on a dark stage in the Stony Point High School auditorium and began a conversation about what everyone can do to keep a conversation about mental health at the forefront and help students understand it’s OK to ask for help.
About 1 in 5 children ages 13-18 have or will have a serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Over the past week, KXAN has launched a project about student wellness and safety called “Save Our Students.”
A big part of the project is exploring possible solutions to help students, both here at home and across the nation. Round Rock ISD Superintendent Steve Flores kicked off the event “A Conversation to Save Our Students” Monday with a video.
“Tonight is simply about exploring those solutions,” Flores said on a large screen stretching across the stage. “Maybe they’ll spark other ideas and keep each of us thinking about ways to help our kids.”
More than 135 audience members at the auditorium and thousands more watching on Facebook and KXAN’s live stream watched four KXAN stories from the project, listened and asked questions of the six panelists: Officer David Rodriguez, a Leander ISD School Resource Officer; Ruth McEntire, Georgetown ISD PTA president and RRISD teacher; Karen Ranus, NAMI Austin Executive Director; Lashanda Lewis, RRISD Counseling Services Coordinator; Amy Grosso, RRISD Future Readiness Coordinator; and Jeffrey Yarbrough, RRISD Director of Security and Safety.
A lot of the times, said Grosso, parents, teachers and staff feel like they need to fix students experiencing mental illness. Instead, they should think of it like one would a physical illness: A teacher might see a student is feeling sick and has a 101°F fever, and their next step is to call a nurse. It’s the same idea with mental health, Grosso said, and anyone can take action.
“It’s not your job to fix it,” Grosso said. “But, notice something is happening and get them to go where they need to go next.”
Ranus added the conversation needs to begin at home, and parents need to recognize they shouldn’t feel ashamed if their child is struggling. “It’s not shameful — it’s a health issue,” she said.
“We need to challenge us to create a safe space to talk about mental health as the health issue it is,” she said.
Both Round Rock ISD and Leander ISD have a system of anonymous alerts, which students can use for themselves or to share concerns about their friends. RRISD also has Gaggle Alerts, which monitors student activity on RRISD servers for keywords students may be searching or writing. The next step is to find those students and get them the help they need.
A threat assessment program like the one at Weatherford ISD will roll out to all districts in Texas as a direct response to the deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School.
Yarbrough said Round Rock ISD already has a similar threat assessment program that looks for an opportunity to provide resources to students who may be struggling, or those who might harm themselves or others. Grosso said as part of this, the community needs to consider the bigger picture when discussing mental health.
“The basic educational awareness piece has to happen before we do anything else,” Grosso said.
Round Rock ISD also has a partnership with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services for mental health centers at two schools provide counseling and other services to families.
Ranus, with NAMI, says it’s important to bring parents into the mix and have them be a model on how to deal with mental health.
“Parents need to develop a language around mental illness and anxiety, tell kids about it and give them permission to speak up if they need help,” Ranus said.
“Adults need to own up that we struggle, too,” Grosso added.
And, if parents or an adult at school sees signs that someone is struggling, they should reach out to help, Yarbrough said. That’s part of the philosophy behind a tool called Mental Health First Aid.
“You don’t have to be a subject matter expert — you just have to be aware and you have to care enough to be aware,” Yarbrough said.
It’s a balance of getting students the resources they need and keeping everyone safe. Yarbrough said students who may be a threat should have that marked on their records, but also need to be followed up with and given resources to help.
One school district in California employs counselors in classrooms to provide feedback directly to teachers on how to handle situations that crop up. Round Rock ISD has a similar focus for elementary schools, Lewis said, and the goal is to keep students in class and show how to de-escalate situations.
“It helps those students learn to control their emotions and learn what’s going on and they model that for other students in class,” Lewis said.
While the focus of counselors becomes more academic as students grow up, Lewis said many schools are forming groups on campus focused on mental health that students can go to during their flex periods.
Ranus said the most important lesson to remember is: “We have the power to transform our communities by being more engaged with each other.” She feels technology like cell phones and social media has given everyone a false sense of connection.
“We place great focus on therapists and social workers, but I do think it’s important to recognize that, as human beings, we long to be connected,” Ranus said. “We long to be in relationship.”
Many teachers didn’t go into their profession to be mental health experts, but Grosso said it’s become increasingly necessary.
“We as a society haven’t talked about it, so now we are expecting schools to deal with it,” she said. Parents need to partner with schools and be part of any conversation about their child’s mental health early.
There are many resources people can turn to if they or someone they know is struggling. KXAN has a list of resources, some of which, like the crisis text line (741741), can be used 24/7.
Officer Rodriguez says on a daily basis, he looks for signs that students might not be OK — those who get in trouble, change habits, self-medicate, or self-harm — but notes because each student is different, the signs that they may need help are different, too.
“Communication is big,” he said. “Just ask the questions.”
Then, follow up, Rodriguez said. Get students the help they need, and reassure them that people care about them.
Lewis said these conversations can be hard, but especially with children and teens, it’s important to ask specific questions.
“If I don’t ask these questions, what are the possible alternatives?” Lewis asked.
Ranus added that parents can practice active listening with their children and, like Officer Rodriguez, create a space for them to talk. They also don’t have to have all the right answers.
“Be honest,” Ranus said. “Let yourself be vulnerable.”
Ranus reiterated mental health statistics and urged people to keep talking and reach out to the people they love who need help.
“There’s no magic bubble over this room, this school, your house. It’s 1 in 5,” Ranus said. “Every single one of us knows or cares about someone dealing with a mental health issue.”
“We need to talk about this,” she continued. “We need to share stories and we need to keep having conversations with one another.”