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District's Mental Health Team focuses on students' stability, well-being

The signs of mental health struggles aren’t always immediate.

Serious depression or violent behavior may be the end results of years’ worth of pain and upset. They can be the final result of a much more gradual pattern, whether it’s being the target of a bully or deamentalhealth.jpgling with an unstable and violent home life.

That makes recognizing early signs of emotional crisis all the more important for the Cherry Creek School District’s team of mental health specialists, a crew that includes school nurses, social workers and psychologists at individual buildings as well as administrators at the district level. All told, the district’s Mental Health Team comprises 47 school social workers and 76 school psychologists, as well as three school social work interns and three school psychologist interns.

Recognition, prevention and early treatment of mental illness all figure into the district’s approach to taking care of the overall well-being of its students.

“When you look at the statistics for suicide rates and danger assessment, most kids are at the low level,” said Ron Lee, Mental Health Director for the Cherry Creek School District. “In most educators’ careers, they’re not going to encounter a kid who’s imminently or severely harmful to others. A lot of times, these are kids who might not be on the radar.”

The district’s psychological safety policy seeks to recognize and treat such struggles as early as possible. That approach comes through a comprehensive set of prevention, intervention and assessment programs, all designed to help a student before they reach a crisis point.

“It’s really a prevention measure to get them on the radar with adults,” Lee said. “We try to engage them in a way that leads to more healthy choices and behaviors.”

That kind of engagement can be complicated. There’s no one single answer for personal crises in a district of more than 55,000 students; making sure that someone who needs help doesn’t fall through the cracks takes coordination from different corners of the district.

That’s part of the reason Lee and his colleagues on the district’s Psychological Wellness and Safety Team don’t operate in a vacuum. Through surveys distributed to students across the district, the team gathers updated data directly from students, teachers and staff. They work closely with Cherry Creek’s Safety and Security Department to refine a strategic safety plan. It’s a multi-tiered approach that places equal emphasis on students’ physical and psychological safety.

“There is mental health support available starting in preschool. In elementary schools, there are psychologists and social worker teams. At middle schools and high schools, there are layers of support – a mental health team, counselors and deans.”

-- Cam Short-Camilli, coordinator of mental health services for the Cherry Creek School District

Prevention is at the heart of the mental health side of the equation. The district has taken cues from the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools model, a national template for making schools more secure and mental health services more easily available.

But the Cherry Creek School District team has tailored its own unique approach to spotting mental and emotional crises.

Lee points to district policies and programs specifically aimed at decreasing bullying, promoting positive behavior and physical fitness and reducing other at-risk behaviors linked to suicide such as drug and alcohol abuse. The mental health team casts a wide net, whether it’s encouraging students and parents to offer firsthand input via the district’s care line or providing every new district employee important information about spotting mental health struggles early. The district offers classes for parents to help recognize warning signs; it’s partnered with local agencies like Aurora Mental Health to build strong community ties. Even district staff has access to mental health professionals to deal with issues like stress and depression.

Most directly, it’s reached out directly to CCSD students.

“We do a great job of tracking through our climate surveys to get a pulse on what’s going on with kids,” Lee said. “There are a lot of prevention efforts. Although they may seem indirect, they’re pretty significant in creating a positive, safe and inclusive environment.

“Adults are more approachable and learning environments are safer,” he added.

Those efforts have become all the more important in the wake of local and national tragedies. Mental health has become an important part of the national dialogue about school violence. After senseless tragedies like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Arapahoe High School, the importance of constant care is at the center of critical discussions about school safety.

“There is mental health support available starting in preschool,” said Cam Short-Camilli, coordinator of mental health services for the district. “In elementary schools, there are psychologists and social worker teams. At middle schools and high schools, there are layers of support – a mental health team, counselors and deans.”

That kind of support network is just as important as more security cameras and locks at any single building. The district’s psychologists, social workers and counselors are trained to recognize early warning signs and intervene at the most critical stages. They’re part of the reason schools remain among the safest environments in a student’s everyday life.

“We can train educators on awareness and we can create environments where we can be very responsive in a fast and effective way,” Lee said. “We can communicate across the school district, across our hundred square miles."

-- Posted Sept. 3, 2014

Posted 9/3/2014 10:00 AM
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