The topics of suicide and mental health are ones that many people try to avoid, but they are more common than you may realize. The hope is that shining a spotlight on mental health will help more people seek treatment.
Mental Health 101
School is coming to an end for most kids in East Tennessee over the next few days. This year, a record number of children participated in mental health-related classes.
Because most children spend much of their time at school, a growing number of educators are taking the opportunity to reach kids with mental health-related prevention and early identification activities.
April Tucker, an experienced counselor, is leading a group of students at Anderson County High School. They’re tenth graders, an age when teenagers confront a myriad of conflicting emotions.
“My hope is today when you are finished, you will walk away from here knowing something you didn’t know when you came and you’ll feel better equipped to talk care of your own mental health or be able to help a friend who may be in trouble,” Tucker told the group.
In East Tennessee, educational leaders understand how schools are critical in helping prevent mental health problems from escalating in kids, in building their well-being and resilience and helping young people learn the skills they need to better cope in today’s complex world.
“We’re going to learn a lot about stress. What happens in our brains, in our bodies when we experience stress. We’re going to talk about healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with stress,” said Tucker.
Through April 30, Mental Health 101 was in 27 counties and 107 schools from Chattanooga, Knoxville, to the Tri-Cities, reaching 31,000 students compared to only 600 kids when it first began nearly two decades ago.
“It’s important to change what folks know about mental health. Most don’t know a lot. So it’s important for folks understand signs and symptoms of mental illness. Then they can reach out and get help for their fellow students, themselves, or even a family member,” said Ben Harrington, president of the East Tennessee Mental Health Association.
To test their stress level, a dozen students in a circle threw tennis balls, as many as six at a time, in the same order to the same person each time. The takeaway was you have to learn to deal with stress.
“The exercise that April did with all the tennis balls – it’s right there to show these young people it’s hard to cope with all these things coming at you. So kids have to juggle multiple stressors,” said Harrington.
The kids were listening.
“Well stress can be good or bad. It can affect you emotionally and in other good ways. I feel like one way to stop bad stress is doing things at our own pace,” said student Jordan Keisling.
“One in five people is diagnosed with mental illness every year,” Tucker told the class.
As the message turned more serious, the students were guided through some of the early symptoms of mental illness. They were encouraged to become engaged in potential live-saving conversations, especially if one of their friends talks about or contemplates suicide.
“We all need to have at least two people outside of our home that we can talk to about the things we are thinking, feeling and going through,” said Tucker.
The message got through.
“I have a friend who suffers from mental illness. He has seeked help for it and still suffers from it. I can understand how to help him because I wasn’t sure what he was going through, or how to help him. I understand a little bit more,” said student Angel Phillips.
“Those two facts: the what to recognize and when they have to do something and they go running to a trusted adult and they intervene that’s how we know it works,” said Harrington.
Mental Health 101 hopes to equip students with the skills they need to take with them to understand their own mental health and that of their friends.
To gauge the outcome of the seminars, pre- and post-surveys are conducted and the results are encouraging. Seventy-seven percent of the kids can correctly identify signs of mental illness. Eighty-five percent can correctly identify signs of suicide and 94 percent correctly said you should talk to someone if symptoms last for two weeks. From these numbers, students are becoming increasingly aware of mental health, mental health problems and disorders.
Online screening for mental illness
One in five Tennesseans will be affected by mental illness this year. However, nearly two thirds of those struggling with a diagnosable condition don’t get treatment. You can screen yourself online to help determine if you have a problem.
“What will happen in the screening, the person will answer a number of questions, then the tool will calculate the answers and if you screen positive, you will get that report right there on the screen,” said Harrington.
There are nine screening categories among them are depression, general anxiety disorder, PTSD, screening of adolescent depression. eating disorder and substance abuse.
“So this is going to ask us some sample lead in questions,” said Harrington as the screening began.
The questions we screened were for depression. Questions included things like if you blame yourself for a lot of things, have a poor appetite, and if you’ve ever wanted to kill yourself. If you say yes to that, an emergency message pops up saying to reach help from the National Suicide Help Line.
As the screening continued, those who suffer unnecessarily from episodes of mental illness can go a decade until they’re diagnosed and start treatment.
“What we hope to accomplish is giving people a starting point. Giving people a place where they think they know what is going on, then they can take the next step,” said Caitlin Ensley, outreach director with the Mental Health Association.
The screening on depression took about 10 minutes to complete and came back negative.
“We want people to get help earlier. We want people to be successful in their treatment. We want ultimately for people to be healthy and happy,” said Ensley.
Mental health professionals say 20 percent of Tennesseans are affected by mental illness. Many people develop undiagnosed mental health symptoms by the age of 24, yet two thirds struggle for years with a diagnosable condition. With screening easily available, there’s no reason to let treatment delay happen to you or someone you care about.