The Sturgeon Bay School District is one of 27 in the state to participate in the Wisconsin School Mental Health Project, a five-year project to improve students’ emotional well-being and mental health.
“We’ve had an increase in the number of students and families dealing with mental health issues,” said Ann Smejkal, principal of Sturgeon Bay High School. “That isn’t something that typically fits into the training of a school teacher, so this is an opportunity to learn more about how we can support kids in the school system who are dealing with these problems.”
Goals for the project are to train more school-community teams to develop policies, programs and practices that support students with mental health challenges and to integrate those activities into the schools’ existing behavior and discipline systems so they work together to improve the overall climate for student emotional well-being.
In Wisconsin, it is estimated that one in five children and adolescents experience a significant mental health issue that impairs their functioning in the community, at home or in school. Symptoms of student mental health issues are wide ranging and can include behavioral outbursts, disengagement from friends and usual activities, problems with grades and school attendance, substance use and abuse, and thoughts or attempts of suicide. Wisconsin’s youth suicide rate is more than 30 percent higher than the national average. Among the young people with mental health challenges, it is estimated that in any given year a mere 20 percent to 30 percent receive the services they need.
“I would say we have noticed a higher incidence, so we want to do the best we can to understand and support students’ emotional well-being because that affects their day-to-day school life, so we have to understand what the circumstances are and how we can help them to be successful in school,” Smejkal said. “Certainly one of our highest goals is to engage our students so they feel safe and secure in school and are ready to learn. If there are barriers to that, we have to understand the barriers and find ways to support them. Free and appropriate education for all, means for all.”
Smejkal said the mental health program coincides with the school’s Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) program.
“This was an opportunity to get some professional development and support through the state,” she said. “Some of our school staff will more than likely be involved in that training and we’ll disseminate it to the rest of the staff.”
The professional development offered through the project will directly address students with high mental health needs while also supporting strategies that benefit all students. The professional development and technical assistance will
• Promote the emotional well-being of all students;
• Engage families as partners in supporting student emotional well-being;
• Detect early warning signs of student mental health challenges and make effective referrals;
• Provide effective services by school staff and community partners for youth with mental health needs;
• Integrate mental health and emotional well-being work with PBIS; and
• Use a “coaching model” provided by a school mental health consultant.
The 27 districts were given the option of entering the program this year or next year. The Sturgeon Bay District chose to enter the program in the 2016 school year.
“We’ve got a bunch of things we are working on that would tie in nicely, but we weren’t prepared to take on another initiative this year,” Smejkal said. “I think the state of Wisconsin is taking a positive step in addressing that mental health issues exist in the schools and they’re looking for ways to help school districts and creating an actual system for support.”