VERNON – Mental illness is a very significant public health issue for American children, according to one Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent who is part of a team trying to make a difference in the Rolling Plains area.
“Studies show that over 1 million Texas children have some type of diagnosable mental health disorder,” said Lorrie Coop, AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences agent in Knox County. “Of those, nearly half have a mental illness that impairs their ability to learn and be successful in school.”
However, she said, an estimated 75-80 percent of all children and youth with mental health problems do not get treatment because of the stigma attached to the diagnosis.
“People generally fear what they do not understand,” Coop said. “Our goal is to help educate those who work with youth on how to recognize the signs of possible mental illness and to give them the tools to provide early intervention, before a disorder manifests itself, which offers the best opportunity to protect young people.”
Coop and the team of AgriLife Extension family and consumer science agents are starting their second year in addressing mental health first aid in conjunction with the Helen Farabee Centers.
“This is a good example of an emerging need that has been addressed through a local partnership,” said Dana Tarter, AgriLife Extension regional program leader for family and consumer sciences and 4-H youth development in Vernon.
The Helen Farabee Centers specialize in providing access to community-based treatment and support services for persons with severe, persistent forms of mental illness and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Coop, along with Monica Walker in Baylor County and Alinda Cox in Jack County, was trained and certified to train educators on “Youth Mental Health First Aid” program with funding from the Helen Farabee Centers.
The funding came from HB 3793 signed into law in June 2013. Texas received this funding because it ranked near the bottom across the country on spending for mental health care, Tarter said.
The 2013 law provided grants to local mental health authorities, like the Farabee Centers, for training mental health first-aid instructors and for providing mental health first-aid training to educators in the school districts throughout the center’s local service area.
The primary target audience is school personnel in the Farabee Centers coverage area, which includes: Archer, Baylor, Childress, Clay, Cottle, Dickens, Foard, Hardeman, Haskell, Jack, King, Knox, Montague, Stonewall, Throckmorton, Wichita, Wilbarger, Wise and Young counties.
Since February 2014, Coop, Walker and Cox have conducted 11 eight-hour trainings, reaching approximately 250 educators. At this time they have conducted trainings at the O’Brien Middle School in Knox City, Benjamin Independent School District, Paint Creek Independent School District, Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls and all of the Wichita Falls Independent School District.
“Youth mental health issues have shown to be a strong emerging issue as a result of recent community needs assessments,” Coop said. “With the new legislation, schools are being mandated to address the need to educate personnel in this area.”
She said many of the AgriLife Extension programs currently offered, such as preventing food insecurity, parenting, anti-bullying and substance abuse prevention, touch on this issue, making the agents a natural to provide the education.
“This training just brings mental health to the forefront,” Coop said. “The issue was first identified in Knox County in 2011 during a community health needs assessment survey where 14 out of 100 people surveyed reported having a child or children with some mental health issue.
“When asked about their ability to receive help and support for these mental health issues, 24 percent stated they were completely lacking a resource that would meet their needs, and 20 percent of respondents stated that they had some concerns around the perception of accessing mental health services.”
Surveys following the training have included comments such as: “Everyone who works with teens needs this information. It’s such a critical stage in development,” and “This class taught me to identify students who might be going through a mental health issue and gave me the skills to be able to take action.”
Coop said she recently visited with a school counselor in one of the first schools they trained in last year. The counselor said she has seen a difference in the staff and how they treat students. They are more open to listening and more observant to the mood and behaviors of their students and seem to work better as a team to provide a positive learning environment.
She said the counselor also said that, while they have not had a crisis such as a school shooting, dealing with the day-to-day issues students have such as typical adolescent development, attention deficient hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, family issues and bullying is certainly easier.
“Mental illness is just that – an illness,” Coop said. “Like most diseases of the body, mental illness has many causes – from genetics to environmental and social factors and should be considered part of a person’s overall health status.”
The team has received awards at the state and national levels, including the School Wellness Team Award for both the Texas Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences and the National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, and the Human Development/Family Relationships Team Award for Texas Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.