Students from sixth grade through high school will have five hours of mental health education beginning with the next school year.

The state shifted its focus to youth mental health and early interventions after a 2018 mass shooting claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

For the 2019-20 school year, Charlotte County received $476,918 through the Florida Education Finance Program for mental health programs.

“The vast majority of this money is being spent on mental health professionals that are working with students on a daily basis who are facing challenging mental health and emotional situations,” said Michael Desjardins, assistant superintendent for School Support Services.

Sarasota County Schools received $1,141,681 from the state.

School District spokesperson Kelsey Whealy said that money was largely spent on contracts with outside agencies.

“Sarasota County has a particularly active philanthropic community, and we receive a lot of grants for a variety of educational needs and programs,” Whealy said.

What is Charlotte County doing?

According to Desjardins, Drug Free Charlotte County will be teaching drug prevention and abuse classes in schools, while Charlotte Behavioral Health Care will be teaching the Signs of Suicide class.

“The program (Signs of Suicide) teaches students how to recognize and acknowledge suicidal thinking, and emphasizes the need for involving a trusted adult,” said CBHC CEO Victoria Scanlon.

She added that Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis prioritizing youth mental health is encouraging.

“Early detection and intervention is a pivotal step in preventing the more devastating effects of mental illness,” Scanlon said.

School social workers, school psychologists and guidance counselors will teach the mental health awareness curriculum, which includes a state-approved online program. The curriculum will vary by schools based on their needs.

To review the district’s full mental health education plan, visit the district’s website at yourcharlotteschools.net/Page/24091.

What is Sarasota County doing?

The district has always taken a proactive approach to addressing mental health concerns, which included the school crisis team going to campuses to talk to students or staff in need of support, Whealy said.

Students and staff are able to seek guidance even if not in a crisis, she added.

This year the district introduced the Kognito mental health education and awareness training. All staff including teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc., were requires to take online and in-person modules, she said. Whealy explained the online modules simulate conversations with parents and students about mental health and behavioral issues in a non-threatening environment. Participants of the course take on the role of a teacher and experience the conversations through that perspective. The in-person sessions recap those modules and allow time for group discussion.

Whealy said as the end of October, 97% of the district’s 5,000 employees finished the training.

The district also added 16 new mental health therapists in elementary schools and six in middle schools.

“These services are fulfilled by outside agencies who have a unique expertise to enhance trauma-informed, school-based services,” Whealy said.

The Sarasota County School District also:

• Developed its own video modules for students, pairing the Department of Education’s related topics with the expertise from their student service team. Subjects include overall mental health and wellness; how to recognize signs of distress in yourself and others; how to get help, etc.

• Partnered with the National Council for Behavioral Health and trained three new instructors as part of the Youth Mental Health First Aid program.

• Partnered with Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation on a Crisis Text Line, a free 24/7 support system for those in crisis. Users can text HERE4U to 741741 to start a conversation with a trained crisis counselor.

• Partnered with the Sarasota Film Festival on a student public service announcement film contest to teach students how to use social and digital media appropriately.

• Issued gender-diverse guidelines to provide direction for all schools.

• Encouraged students, parents and staff to use FortifyFL, via the app or online website, which is an anonymous way to report suspicious activity.

• Integrated safety intervention and assessment teams at every secondary school through a partnership with the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation.

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