September is Suicide Prevention Month and WYDaily is looking at different areas of our community to see what mental health resources are out there.
This week, WYDaily looked at how local schools are helping their students and educators connect to mental health resources.
The Virginia Department of Education recently updated their suicide prevention guidelines. The last time these guidelines were revised was 2003, said Elaine Gould, director of student services for the York County School Division.
Gould said the division’s team of psychologists then developed YCSD’s suicide risk assessment and protocols for when a student is in danger or is exhibiting suicidal behavior.
“One thing we are doing well is that we’ve been focused on the well-being of our students. We recognize that it’s been a long time since they’ve been in school, so we are hyper-focused on that since the beginning of the school year,” Gould said.
She added over the summer, the division’s counselors, psychologists, and social workers also put together resources for families, such as where to find food or assistance in the locality.
“We’re really starting off the school year making sure that we’re focused on the social and emotional well-being of our students. That’s why the first week of school was dedicated to social and emotional learning, getting the kids acclimated to school, and making sure everyone is ok,” Gould said.
YCSD is also providing resources to their educators. Teachers will be going through “incognito,” scenario-based training. This will train teachers to be aware of risk factors for students from Pre-K through grade 12, intervention, and how to connect students to the division’s mental health providers.
Katie Gaylord, lead school counselor for YCSD, said over the summer, the division also developed a task force for self-directed learning.
She added they also worked alongside Martha Rouleau, a qualified mindfulness based meditation teacher and adjunct lecturer at William & Mary, to develop a cohort for mindfulness last school year. The cohort of five educators did an eight-week intensive course on mindfulness based stress reduction as a way to regulate emotions and reduce stress.
“Teaching students this is going to be what pivots us from being reactive to being proactive,” Gaylord said.
This school year, under the CARES Act funding, Gaylord, Gould, and other directors from the central offices are working on creating another cohort of teacher leaders who can acquire training on MBSR with Rouleau. This year they will have 15 additional people in the group, which will allow for every school in the division to have a mindfulness coach and lead professional development.
Gaylord used the plane mask metaphor to explain the importance of being of sound mind and body to help others. She said the same principle applies to educators helping students.
“We have to be able to feel good and feel safe and feel supported as educators prior to being able to assist our students,” she said.
Gaylord herself went through the training with Rouleau and said she felt very supported and thinks it will make a great impact.
Coming up this fall, she and Gould are working with the YCSD central offices to build a resilience workshop for the employees as well. She said they also put together a crisis tip sheet to give to teachers on the very first week of school. The tip sheet addresses what to do in signs of a crisis during remote learning.
Last spring, when the school districts had to switch to “emergency at home learning” after Gov. Ralph Northam closed all K-12 schools, Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools created the school counselor connect, a way for students to call counselors directly, WJCC spokeswoman Eileen Cox said.
Other measures the district has implemented now that most students are attending school remotely is having staff reach out to students and publishing mental health resources on the school’s website.
As part of the remote learning curriculum, students have access to social and emotional learning activities during the week with more activities available asynchronously on Fridays.
School counselors can also set up individual Zoom meetings with students and have them do an activity or watch a video related to mental health, Cox added.
“Our teachers have been watching students now for a week, seeing how they are interacting, building relationships with their students and their classmates,” Cox said.
If teachers notice a student “doesn’t look like they are having a really good day” a few days in a row or is having trouble adjusting to remote learning, they will work with the students as well as other teachers and counselors, she added.
While WJCC is not doing division-wide initiative for National Suicide Prevention Month, Cox said the high schools usually have some “some awareness building” activities.
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