Remember the school shooting in Philippi, West Virginia last August? If it doesn’t ring a bell, that’s probably because no shots were fired. A state trooper and a pastor talked a student who had taken his class hostage into surrendering his weapon. No one was harmed.
In a way, the experience was a success - an affirmation that school violence can be prevented. At least that’s the hope of Project AWARE, a federal grant program that teaches adults how to handle - and help- youth who are suffering from mental illness and addiction.
This story was produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
The grant was awarded to three West Virginia counties last year. This is the first year of implementation.
The theory behind the project is that the first step to preventing school violence is connecting students and communities to mental and behavioral health services – including counseling, group and individual therapy, and psychiatric care –before a “problem” becomes a “crisis.”
One of the main initiatives of the grant is Mental Health First Aid, which trains teachers, administrators, counselors and community members to recognize the signs of addiction and mental illness.
“Mental Health First Aid can be compared to CPR for mental health,” says Paula Fields, the coordinator of the Project AWARE grant for the West Virginia Department of Education. The eight-hour education program is designed for people who aren’t mental health professionals.
In class, participants learn about depression and mood disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma, psychosis and substance use disorders. Participants are then taught how to apply the Mental Health First Aid five-step action plan to a potential crisis situation: First assess, then listen. Give reassurance and information. Encourage appropriate professional help. Then, encourage self-help.
“I think we are seeing the awareness of mental health issues and seeing the level of acceptance change,” says Ingrida Barker, a school administrator in McDowell County, which received a grant. “Because whenever people think about a mental health issue, they think of it in a negative light. We can say everyone struggles with something.”
Barker says that in McDowell County, Project AWARE is not only teaching skills, but changing the social stigma that still often surrounds mental illness.
The county school district has been able to provide outpatient services through partnerships with community health centers, and with Marshall University, which provides two graduate student counselors to facilitate group therapy.