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Schools Seek to Address Behavioral, Mental Health Problems

A growing number of school-age children have experienced some form of trauma or emotional difficulty. That often translates into behavioral problems both within the family and at school.

Increasingly, however, schools are attempting to prevent and address those problems through a variety of services, according to Brenda Huber, director of the Psychological Services Center at Illinois State University, and Mark Jontry, regional schools superintendent for McLean, Livingston, Logan and DeWitt counties.

"Children are coming to school agitated. In some cases it is due to issues at home, so kids are coming to our schools with more and more behaviors that are a real challenge and obstacle to learning, not only for themselves but the classroom," Jontry said.

Huber said half the children in schools have experienced "really adverse circumstances prior to coming to school and some that are on-going."

She listed abuse and neglect at home and witnessing violence in the family, neighborhood, and the even the media as triggers for trauma.

Huber said mental health professionals can teach children how to manage those emotions so they are not a barrier to learning.

On Thursday, Jontry and Huber will give a presentation on efforts to address mental health issues in the schools at an all-day Behavioral Health Forum, sponsored by the county and other community groups, at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

In the past year,  a Health in the Schools group has been meeting to learn from  school personnel about the problems they are witnessing. The group is tasked with finding ways to address those problems.

A number of supports already exist within the schools, Huber said. For example, students can meet in groups supervised by a mental health professional where they learn coping techniques for dealing with anger or anxiety.

Students with more significant problems can receive therapy on an individual basis. Increasingly, mental health professionals are based within schools, especially in rural areas where mental health services might not be readily available within the community.

In those areas, "the schools are really the service hubs," Huber said.

Both Jontry and Huber said they believe teachers need better training in dealing with their students' emotional and behavioral difficulties, and that there are some calls currently for mandated teacher training in mental health.

School nurses are currently receiving enhanced training in this area.

In the past, many students with behavioral or emotional problems were automatically reported to the police or the Department of Children and Families Services. The focus on mental health services is a way to avoid those referrals except when absolutely necessary, Huber and Jontry said. 

The county has also made progress in better training even first responders, such as the police and fire and rescue workers, in how to deal with mental health cases. 

Huber said suicide attempts among students remain a concern, although the rate of attempts in McLean County is no higher than in surrounding counties.

Bullying, however, is a major problem. It is "the number one reported concern from our youth," Huber said.

A 2014 youth survey by the University of Illinois found that 42 percent of all sixth graders in McLean County said they experienced bullying one of more times, usually over their appearance or a physical disability. The number that reported bullying declined to about 27 percent once students reached high school.

A recent needs assessment by school and mental health officials identified teaching students better coping skills to prevent suicide attempts as a top priority, Huber said.

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