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SUN FILE PHOTO BY SCOTT LAWSON

North Port High School

SARASOTA — Region school districts are working on mandates from the state on how to education students about mental health next school year.

The Florida Department of Education states every district must include a minimum of five hours of instruction to students in grades 6-12 on youth mental health, beginning next school year.

Each district was required to outline how they plan to implement this curriculum to the Department of Education by Dec. 1 annually.

Per state statue the curriculum must include: recognition of signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, prevention, mental health awareness and assistance, reducing stigma, awareness of local, school and community resources, accessing treatment.

Also in the long list are: healthy coping techniques, how to support a peer, friend or family member with a mental health disorder, prevention of suicide, and prevention of the abuse of and addiction to alcohol, nicotine and drugs.

The plan will be implemented for students for the first time during the 2019-2020 school year.

According to spokesperson for Sarasota County Schools Kelsey Whealy, the district has always taken a proactive approach to addressing mental health concerns, which included the school crisis team going to campus to talk to students or staff in need of support.

Students and staff are able to seek guidance even if not in a “crisis” situation, Whealy added.

This year, the district introduced the Kognito mental health education and awareness training.

All staff including teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others were requires to take online and in-person modules, Whealy 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 at 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 at the middle school level at the beginning of last year.

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

Other services ...

• The district has 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, and how to get help and go about having these, at times, difficult conversations, among other topics.

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

• The district partnered with Charles and 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.

• They 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 for good.

• Sarasota County issued gender-diverse guidelines to provide direction for all schools to support LGBTQIA+ students and ensure their safety at school.

• The district is also encouraging 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.

According to Michael Desjardins, Charlotte County Public Schools assistant superintendent for School Support Services, DFCC will be teaching drug prevention and abuse classes in Charlotte County schools, while CBHC 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,” CBHC CEO Victoria Scanlon said.

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. The district will also use the state approved EVERFI Online Program for Mental Health Awareness, Desjardins said.

Each school will decide which course the mental health curriculum will be a part of, Desjardins said.

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

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