GROVE, Okla. — The pandemic added another level to the struggle with mental health in youth, but for one Green Country school district, the battle to help teens and children is not fought alone.
Teen suicide is a national crisis, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is one of the leading causes of death in teens aged 15-19 years.
"It's way harder to be a kid than it was when I was a kid,” Pat Dodson, Superintendent of Grove Schools, said.
He adds in an age of advanced technology, kids are constantly exposed to what's going on through social media and feeling pressure to live up to certain standards.
“Part of this has been exacerbated by COVID, so now there's isolation and there's personal loss,” Dodson said.
Managing the coping mechanisms of loss, came to a head when tragedy struck the town last summer.
"We were faced with a lot of personal losses within our community,” Rebecca Mease, Special Service Director in School Psychology with Grove Schools, said. “So, we knew at that point that this was immediate."
Mease said she knew Grove schools needed to help students and staff as soon as school started back up.
“This was going to be emotionally overwhelming for them to come back to school and not see that person that was there the year before,” she said.
In November 2020, Grand Lake Mental Health provided the district with information for a grant opportunity. The school applied and was awarded the Embrace Grant in February of 2021, which helped with the vision of increasing awareness within the schools. From there, they agreed to develop a five-year plan, which incorporated a Multi-Tiered System of Support, or MTSS.
"Which is looking at the child as social-emotional, academic, and mental health,” Mease said.
This allows the district to look at each student’s story, and it came at the right time, according to Mease. She said it helped the school and community learn to cope with the existing student mental health struggles and trauma from the pandemic. The Embrace Grant, combined with others from the Oklahoma State Department of Education Corp Grant and the School Transformation Grant, allowed the school to find resources and hit the ground running.
"One of the myths with kids having suicidal thoughts is they don't want to talk about it, but I think that's a myth,” Ray Moran, Operational Director of Delaware County Grand Lake Mental Health Center, said.
Moran said any caring adult can speak to a child and more than likely that child is willing to talk about their struggles, which is the environment Grove schools is creating. It’s a place to feel safe. The money from these grants provides the district with resources available directly to students on site.
"This year with the opportunity to create a calming room, it has given us a place for our students to come and just take a minute if they need to,” Toni Cusick, Grove High School Counselor and MTSS Coordinator, said.
She said the calming rooms provide students with sensory experiences for five to 10 minutes. Whether it's a sound machine, bean bag chairs, or soft lighting, it all creates an environment meant to ease a student's mind and to take a deep breath.
"Sometimes a student just needs to come in there and play with a manipulative, sit with a weighted blanket,” Cusick said.
Calming rooms are offered in all Grove schools for each grade level. The calming rooms, along with therapy dogs Remi and Rosie are a part of the Evolution Foundation.
“We just try to make ourselves known,” Cusick said. “We try to create that relationship because it all goes with what everybody is talking about, communicating and being available… making sure the students know we care."
Action Based Learning or ABL is another way of allowing students to fine-tune their motor skills. ABL, which gives younger students an entire 45-minute class to focus on brain support, links movement and learning, which in turn is proven to enhance academic performance and behavior.
Other resources include Delaware Community Partnership, which provides networking, training, and parent education, Grand Lake Mental Health, Grove Police Department, Oklahoma Family Network, Light of Hope, and grief resources for staff and family through Darwin King, a school social worker, and a Mental Health Coordinator.
These are just a few of the amazing tools Grove Schools is using to combat the ideations of suicide and other mental health struggles on school grounds, but it also goes beyond school walls.
“Handle with Care is a program we put in that's pretty much free, but it has benefits for our district and for our kids,” the school superintendent said.
The program is a relationship between Grove Schools and first responders.
“If a child-age kid experiences something the night before, say there's a domestic situation, fire, or loss of a loved one… I get a phone call that night,” Dodson said.
The phone call doesn't give details as to what happened, but the district is told to “handle with care,” and given the student's name. This way teachers and administration know a child has experienced a trauma and may need special attention.
Funding from the grants allows the school to provide students with the help they need. From hiring more school counselors, and a social worker, coordinating resources for students, to purchasing a curriculum meant to help students better understand their emotions.
The effort has Grove Public Schools considered a stand-out district in the eyes of the Oklahoma Department of Education.
If your school is interested in these types of grants to enhance mental health awareness and resources, you can visit the links below:
- Oklahoma Department of Education Student Services
- Evolution Foundation
- Grand Lake Mental Health
- Parkside Hospital Suicide Training
- Transformation Grant
- Handle with Care
- Light of Hope
- Delaware County Community Partnership (DCCP)
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