Peace of Mind Project: Mental Health in Kentucky schools

KENTUCKY (WFIE) - When the Johnson Brothers visit Dave at RiverValley Behavioral Health, they say its like hanging out with a good friend.

"He's really good at helping you cheer up when you're down," Peyton Johnson said during one of his sessions with Dave.

You would never know he was their therapist, but Dave's made a big difference in these boys lives.

"Before I came here, I was kind of a reckless child. Ever since I came here, I've been like a good kid I guess you could say," Drew Johnson said.

But not all kids have a Dave they can talk to. Mike Flaherty is like a Dave to many at Daviess County Public Schools and he stays very busy.

"We go bell to bell. All of us have between 200 to 250 kids on our caseloads," Flaherty said. He's a student Assistance Coordinator Behavioral Specialist for Daviess County Public Schools.

Flaherty is one of five student assistance coordinators, capable of handling most mental health needs of the students solely at DCPS. He says it's rare to have that many staff for that purpose, but they're still stretched thin looking out for nearly 12,000 students.

"I've noticed an increase in anxiety in children especially, an increase in diagnosable depression disorders, and I think there are a lot of kids who have social intervention problems that I believe are increasing," Flaherty said.

He says as the need increases, the resources aren't keeping up. That means more kids could fall through the cracks. Schools across the nation are seeing this, but DCPS doesn't want that happen here.

"It goes against the very essence of an educator. It's one of those things that if or when that ever occurs, it sends cold chills up your spine. And it should for all of the right reasons. This obviously is an area of need. We just feel like we aren't able to address that," Superintendent Matt Robbins said.

So they've put a plan together to train all staff. That includes everyone from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria workers. It will teach them to recognize when a student needs help and what direction they can point a student whether it's to Flaherty and the other coordinators or to an external source. 
 
"You can think of this like first aid training. Only this is focused on helping people understand our children and understand what signs they should look for with that," Dr. Amy Shutt, Assistant Superintendent for Human Services, said.

That's where RiverValley Behavioral Health comes in. It's providing the mental health first aid training to all 2,400 DCPS employees. Dr. Deborah Bradford who says the statistics are alarming. Twenty percent of youth struggle with mental disorders. She says early intervention decreases the disability.

"Mental illness is a physical illness. You just can't see it. It's called behavioral health. It has genetic components. It has heredity components and the environment can bring it out. It is a physical illness and people do not understand and realize that," Dr. Bradford said.

The mental health first aid training will teach employees just that, so students like Drew and Peyton can find their Dave.

"Teachers don't really know what kids go through or how they feel. They think it's just because they don't want to do nothing, but really it's because they have something that's bothering them and bugging them. If you have a therapist, someone you can talk to and help you out, you just become a better person with it," Drew said.

RiverValley plans to host those training sessions this month.

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