From T. R. Williams:

Do you have problems most people don’t know about?

The answer, of course, is yes. Everyone does, even children.

Children feel the effects of whatever’s going on at home, and have social and academic issues to worry about, too. Even the very young can suffer from anxiety and depression.

May is National Children’s Mental Health AWAREness Month. The emphasis is placed because AWARE is a program in Lawrence County schools that is helping our students cope with the problems life brings them.

Lawrence, Lauderdale and Anderson counties were hand-picked by the state Department of Education to receive a five-year, $2.3 million grant to develop AWARE programs in their schools. The best solutions will be part of AWARE as it’s shared with school systems across the state.

The five-year period is now at its midpoint, and several things are working very well:

Teachers and parents can request help for students, and students can ask for help themselves through a link on the school system website’s home page, www.lcss.us. The information they submit goes to Student Support Liaisons (SSLs), AWARE social workers who talk to students and their parents to understand everything that may be affecting a child’s mental health.

Because SSLs aren’t school administrators or teachers, parents are more likely to open up about family issues. Students act out when they’re having problems, so their parents have usually been contacted repeatedly by school personnel. For that reason, those relationships can be strained.

Since February last year, 369 students have been referred to SSLs, Abercombie said. At first, only teachers and parents could make referrals, but Youth AWARE Committees (at each high school) asked that students be able to ask for help themselves.

Thirty-six students have reached out since that change was made. Hopefully, that number includes all contemplating suicide. Counselors learn that an average of one student every week is at that point. Last week there were three.

Students referred may not need counseling, but if they do it’s available. The AWARE program has a contract with Health Connect, which provides free in-school therapy sessions for those who need it. Since February last year, 212 students have received therapy and 79 have been discharged. Family therapy can also be arranged through Health Connect, with payments through TennCare or private insurance.

Counseling is just one part of AWARE’s success. Computer-based curriculum called Why Try? was purchased and is now available for all students, 6th grade and up. The first to use it was a local high school’s In-School Suspension (ISS) program. Out of 160 students who completed its lessons about choices, consequences, and social skills, only four have returned to ISS.

“We are working on the culture and climate of our schools,” Abercrombie said. Relationship-building creates a place where students feel safe enough to share their problems with adults and peers. In addition to training provided to Youth AWARE Committee members, 200 ninth grade students have taken mental health awareness classes.

High school students have also created billboards that are on display in Lawrence County and YouTube films that raise awareness about mental health issues. AWARE spreads the message through social media as well, on Facebook as AWARE We Are Here To Help; and on Twitter @aware_lcss.

A Youth Mental Health First Aid program is available for anyone who works with adolescents. If you do, please consider becoming certified through this 8-hour program, as 239 of our residents already have. The course will teach you how to support youth who are experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and a range of other common problems. Sign up by emailing april.abercrombie@lcss.us.

AWARE is making a positive difference in our community because it is improving the lives of our children and families. The earlier a child can be helped, the sooner they can begin to succeed and be the best they can be, now and in the future. There are two and one-half years left of the grant, and I for one want to see us find a way to keep this support in place for them.

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