School staff learns mental health first aid

Rappahannock County Public Schools are leading the state of Virginia in addressing the critical area of mental and emotional health of their students, according to the Mental Health Association of Fauquier, which has recently expanded its role to serve Rappahannock and entered a first-in-Virginia partnership with the local school system to offer the evidence-based Youth Mental Health First Aid course to their entire staff.

In mid-February, 78 teachers, aides, coaches and administrators devoted their in-service day to learning about typical child and adolescent development versus the signs and symptoms of emerging mental health challenges. Superintendent Donna Matthews also offered teachers recertification credit as an incentive to them to spend another five hours outside of normal school hours to complete the remainder of the course, which focuses on ways to support young people in distress.

“This subject is not just an add-on for teachers and school staff,” said course instructor Sallie Morgan. “Nothing could be more important to students’ health, personal growth and academic success. Mental Health First Aid enhances the ability to notice signs of distress and the skills and confidence to offer support.”

“Mental health disorders are more common in the U.S. than cancer, heart disease and lung disease combined,” said co-instructor John Waldeck, “and yet they are often not talked about in our culture. Given that half of mental health challenges show up by age 14, and 75 percent manifest by age 24, it is crucial that we identify potential problems in young people and intervene as early as possible.”

Before working with the mental health association, Morgan and Waldeck both held top leadership positions with Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services, which provides mental health care to children and adults in the region.

“I am so impressed, says Morgan, “with the value Dr. Matthews has placed on this training, including taking her own time to participate in the course. And I’m also amazed by the energy and interest Rappahannock teachers have brought to the completion classes that are being offered at the end of a long teaching day. These folks really get why this is so important!”

As noted in the course, one key protective factor for young people is that they each have at least one trusted adult in their life they can talk to. Schools are in an ideal position to offer such relationships. After participating in the class, Matthews noted that “proactive, positive relationships are vital to the academic success of students who are experiencing crisis in their lives. This course has helped our school family realize the importance and power of such relationships.”

While tackling the very serious subject of mental health, the course also uses a mix of instructional techniques to make the learning interesting and enjoyable. Rich Hogan, career and technical education instructor at Rappahannock County High School, particularly enjoyed “the real life scenarios that had all participants interacting and exchanging analysis of possible mental health problems and how we might respond in each case.”

The training being offered by the Mental Health Association of Fauquier was made possible by a grant from the Fauquier Health Foundation. As part of the grant activity, Morgan and Waldeck are offering a two-day Mental Health First Aid course to community members, free of charge, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 9 and 10 at the Rappahannock County Library. Contact Sallie Morgan at mhafc1@gmail.com or 540-341-8732 if you’re interested in attending.

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