Five area school districts recently participated in mental health workshops. As part of our Mental Health reporting Initiative, WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley says educators were given information about identifying signs and symptoms of mental health issues.
Representatives from the Buffalo Public School District, Lackawanna City Schools, West Seneca, Orchard Park and the Kenmore-Tonawanda School District attended the sessions at West Seneca East Senior High School.
"No one is born knowing mental health skills. We learn that from our family, from our teachers," stated Mary Lou Montanari, director of Basic Emotional Skills Training at the Mental Health Association of Erie County.
Montanari points out when children are not learning social emotional skills at home, then schools should be stepping-in, helping children learn how to share, how to take turns, how to understand feelings and express emotions appropriately.
"We also need to help kids know conflict is a part of life, but it doesn't mean we have to hurt someone else. We can have conflict and we can discuss it. We can come up with solution," explained Montanari.
The workshops provided guidance for educators, learning about prevention to assist in healthy outcome for students.
"Mental health is a big, huge picture. It captures ever population of child," remarked Tracy Spagnolo, principal at Winchester Elementary School in West Seneca.
Spagnolo points out schools districts are focused on 'whole-child' and 'trauma'. Behavioral troubles in a classroom can be linked to trauma and troubled home lives, and it’s happening in urban, suburban and rural districts.
"Trauma can manifest itself in so many different ways, physically, socially, emotionally, mentally and there's a lot of things that we see coming into our schools that students are subject to in terms of trauma, so we're trying to do more with trauma informed care and instruction. We're trying to do more instead of punitive discipline we're looking at more ways to work with students to keep them in our buildings, educate them and help them," Spagnolo noted.
The Healthiest District Initiative is providing assistance to school districts to be 'proactive' instead of 'reactive'. It is not about pre-judging a student’s mental health and behavior, but finding the right professional services to provide help to families.
The Buffalo Public School District and Kenmore-Tonawanda School District have been focusing on 'trauma informed care'.
Director of Ken-Ton's Family Support Center in the district Janet Cerra tells WBFO they've been working on social emotional needs and mental health in its schools for about 16-years.
"So the days of educating our teachers and mental health workers in the schools are kind of over and we are much more into a collaborative piece, but I think in the beginning it has to be just conversation," Cerra said.
Now Ken-Ton is sharing its work and strategies with the other four school districts. Cerra points out poverty, unemployment and drug and alcohol abuse can create difficult home lives for children, interfering with their learning.
"The schools and all of the teachers and all of the mental health workers, principals, administrators. They are so looking for answers. They want to talk to you - you are helping your teachers and administrations understand there is a direct relations hip between those social-emotional issues going with the child outside of school and their behavior and or academics in school," Cerra replied.
According to the Mental Health Association of Erie County, the Erie County Medical Center (ECMC) has treated nearly 13,000 to 14,000 people a year, both children and adults, for mental health-related troubles.
Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns has been helping with the Healthy District initiative.
"So we have a mental health crisis in our community, compounded that is the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation just released their numbers, that Erie County has slide back, we are 57th out of 62 counties in the state of New York for different categories of mental health and well-being," Kearns explained.
Kearns said this begins important conversations to support the whole-child and provide educators with needed tools.
"I don't think there's one person that could say the don't know one person with a mental health issue," said Kearns.
"We are the signal, most influential people in a child's life, but we are the ones that have to recognize when we are seeing kids that might be quieter, kids who might fall victim to bullying," responded Winchester Elementary principal Spagnolo.
Spagnolo said schools are now safe-havens for so many students struggling at home. She became emotional as she shared her expertise and explain the need t o reach the school children who are suffering.
'The most valuable thing is the power of being able to just listen and knowing that children have a voice, because if I can be that one person to touch a child to help them, that's my goal," Spagnolog tearfully replied.