Confronting Children’s Mental Health Issues Head-On

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “one in five youth lives with a mental health condition, but fewer than half…receive needed services.” While this crisis is widespread across America, great strides are actually being made right here in Central Alabama. The Bold Goals Coalition, a group of 200 organizations solving big community problems by aligning partners, resources and agendas, is confronting this silent enemy head-on by working with the educational system to provide students with the help they need.

Last year, area educators and representatives of several United Way of Central Alabama partner agencies took a giant step toward recognizing and meeting the mental health needs of students in our five-county area. They underwent in-depth instruction to become certified Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) trainers. This certification will allow them to effectively train other school district staff and community members on how to help a child who is experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis or exhibiting signs of addiction.

These certified Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) trainers can now teach other school staff to recognize and help solve children’s mental health issues as they arise.

Led by the National Council for Behavioral Health in partnership with Gateway, trainers spent three days on coursework covering common mental health challenges for youth, as well as a five-step action plan for helping young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics included anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including ADD and ADHD) and eating disorders. The YMHFA training, coupled with additional crisis prevention and de-escalation training and resources, greatly increases the local capacity for school districts to meet their internal needs.

But this training is just one aspect of a large, collaborative plan – in the form of a pilot program – that school districts, mental health providers, funders and others have developed to build more comprehensive systems to deal with mental health issues in our schools. The topic was further explored this past April, when the Bold

(l to r): Dr. Lisa Herring, Birmingham City Schools Superintendent, and Drew Langloh, CEO of United Way of Central Alabama, with Dr. Eric Mackey, State Superintendent of Education.

Goals Coalition hosted Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education, at a luncheon with many local school superintendents from Blount, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair and Walker counties. Dr. Mackey shared insight about the challenges surrounding mental health needs in our schools and joined in on small group discussions among our local superintendents to hear their input on the schools’ role in recognizing and addressing children’s mental health issues.

This pilot program is run through the Mental Health Priority Group of the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership under the leadership of Gus Heard-Hughes of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham with additional funding and staff support from United Way of Central Alabama, the Bold Goals Coalition, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama and the Anne B. LaRussa Foundation of Hope.

It’s inspiring when leaders come together across municipalities, counties and school system boundaries to share knowledge, address concerns as a group and open the door even wider to collaboration. To build a brighter future for our children, we have to work as one community, focus on issues that unite us, think big and develop innovative, bold solutions.