Many local school districts are ahead of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2020 plan, which will require all Indiana school districts to form a partnership with a mental health care provider by 2021 to qualify for the Secured School Safety grant. Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), and the metropolitan school districts of Lawrence, Pike, Washington, Warren and Wayne, have had mental health care providers available to students for years.
Having mental health care professionals inside the school could be especially beneficial to Black students, who face higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts than any other demographic. According to the 2017 Youth Risks Behaviors survey, suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15-24, and Black youth are over three times more likely to attempt suicide than white students.
According to Andrea Summers-Cotton, a mental health wellness specialist for IPS, providing mental health professionals in school was a matter of working with students and assessing the need. IPS has partnerships with seven different mental health care providers, and social workers are located in all schools in the district.
“We spoke to some mental health care providers to find out what it would take to bring them into our schools,” Summers-Cotton said. “We knew we could do better for our kids.”
African American students make up 43% of the student body of IPS, and they face a distinct set of risk factors for mental illnesses such as addiction, depression, moving frequently and a lack of socioeconomic resources.
Furthermore, Summers-Cotton cites cultural differences in how families approach mental health as a factor in why treatment may be delayed or nonexistent.
“Some of those kids might come from families that think spirituality is the only way to address mental health or are from families with a history of mental illness and it has become an accepted way of life,” she said.
Despite the stigma surrounding mental illness, Summers-Cotton sees a positive trend: more African American males are starting to seek help for mental health issues.
According to Kelsey Steuer, Indiana area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, this trend may help African American boys to speak openly about their struggles with mental health.
“We’re working to debunk the myth that showing emotions or needing help is showing weakness,” Steuer said. “If African American boys have figures in their lives that they look up to who are open about their mental health, it makes it easier for them to do the same.”
In IPS, students in all grade levels see age-appropriate presentations about mental health. In the high schools, the presentations have an added emphasis on symptoms of suicidal ideation and suicide prevention.
“For high school students, it’s usually friends that bring it to our [social workers’] attention,” Summers-Cotton said. “They see when friends are posting sad things to social media, or if they’re giving away personal items. We speak with the student and give them tools, like who they can talk to.”
Sandra Squire, principal of Ben Davis High School in Wayne Township, has seen significant benefits to having a partnership with Cummins Behavioral Health for both students and staff.
MSD of Wayne Township has partnered with Cummins for at least 15 years, and staff professional development at Ben Davis has included seminars to train teachers to recognize emotional and mental health issues among students.
“We have … worked to understand our own triggers because it has been stated, ‘an escalated adult cannot deescalate a child,’” Squire said. “Our district has done quite a bit of work in this area … but our staff continue to learn about the brain, behavior and how trauma can affect both.”
Despite the racial disparity in suicidal behavior, neither the MSD of Wayne Township nor IPS have mental health groups or programs specifically targeted toward minority students. However, Ben Davis High School, where 35.5% of the student population is African American, offers two extracurricular groups, Giant Kings and Girls to Women, to offer support for minority students.
Sherman Woodard, a counselor at Ben Davis and the staff leader of Giant Kings, said mental health is always at the forefront of Giant Kings meetings, even if it isn’t always obvious. Students often talk about depression, oppression and concerns that are specific to African American males.
“Schools have to create a culture of community for young people to feel like they belong and aren’t alone,” Woodard said. “When students hear from other peers that have similar concerns, fears and doubts, it can be cathartic. Students need to hear how people have overcome and found support to deal with mental health issues. … Mental health is neglected not just in education, but in society as a whole.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.