Initiative in local schools to erase stigma of illness, educate students and staff earns praise from experts
The featured presentation at the Port Washington-Saukville School District’s opening day assembly for staff members later this month won’t focus on the latest in educational technology, current trends in curriculum or strategies for standardized test-taking. It will focus on mental health — no surprise for a district that experts say is a leader in Wisconsin and beyond in providing mental health programs for its students and educators.
“I’ve taught in special education for 25 years, and I’m here to tell you that what the Port Washington-Saukville School District is doing is extremely unique,” Carol Rybak, youth program coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Wisconsin, said.
“This district realizes we have a mental health problem — a serious problem — and when you have a school district and a community that acknowledges that and actually does something about it, that’s very unique.”
The district’s initiative, which focuses on mental heath education for students and educators, seeks to erase the stigma associated with mental illness and provides treatment and support for young people who suffer from it, began early last year and today thrives with the support of a coalition of community agencies and organizations, Supt. Michael Weber said.
Chief among those organizations is Character Counts of Port Washington-Saukville, which in March 2015 formed a mental health committee that has fueled the school district’s programs.
“It really started as one of those side conversations at a Character Counts meeting and just took off from there,” Weber said. “It’s such a natural part of our philosophy as a school district, that we have to educate the whole child. If children are struggling with mental health issues, it’s very difficult for them to thrive in school.”
Other organizations involved in the initiative include NAMI Ozaukee County, the Ozaukee County Department of Human Services, Ozaukee Family Services, United Way of Northern Ozaukee, public libraries in Port Washington and Saukville and Wisconsin Family Ties, a nonprofit organization of families that include young people who suffer from emotional, behavioral and mental health issues.
“I’ve only been in Port Washington for three months, but I’m so inspired and impressed that the community has taken on such a difficult subject,” Tom Carson, the newly hired director of the Niederkorn Library in Port Washington and a member of the Character Counts mental health committee, told the School Board Monday.
The reason the initiative has been successful, Weber said, is that instead of just fostering a dialog about mental health issues, it’s focused on action. And instead of consisting of sporadic in-service sessions and inspirational daily announcements, the initiative is a series of ongoing programs that have become an integral part of how the district provides services for its students, Rybak said.
“The reason we’ve attracted so much attention with what we’re doing is that we’re organized and action packed,” Weber said. “Our mission is to take action, to do the things that are needed to help our students.”
The district’s initiative was debuted for Port Washington High School students early last school year with a Voices in my Head mental health presentation.
Beyond that, the district has made a substantial investment in mental health services.
A comprehensive counseling center has been established at the high school, where students can make appointments to meet with a therapist during the school day.
And for the 2016-17 school year, the School Board has added a fifth school psychologist, an expensive and hard-to-fill position, so each of the district’s schools will have a psychologist on staff.
The district has also invested in training for its employees. An effort to implement the national Mental Health First Aid program, which teaches people how to understand and respond to people who exhibit signs of mental illness, appeared initially to be too expensive for the district, but administrators found a way to have two employees — Port High Assistant Principal Dan Solorzano and school psychologist Jennifer Eason — trained as instructors who are now training staff members.
In addition, Weber has written a graduate course based on the book, “The Teacher’s Guide to Student Mental Health” by William Dikel. The course is available to district teachers, as well as other educators through Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Both Mental Health First Aid and the graduate courses are intended to help educators wade through the confusing array of behaviors they see in students in order to help those who need it.
“As parents or educators, every time children struggle, you don’t want to send them to the psychologist,” Weber said. “So how do you know what behavior is the product of natural development and what behavior is a precursor to mental health issues?
“It’s not so much that we’re training people to be able to identify a mental health issue but just understand where students are emotionally on a day-to-day basis.”
This school year, the district plans to expand its mental health programming by offering Raise Your Voice, a NAMI Wisconsin program intended to encourage young people to start their own dialog about mental health, at the high school and to eighth-graders at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. The program, which would be piloted in the Port schools, takes the form of a club run by students, Solorzano said.
“It’s a club where kids can come together to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, get help from their peers and work to change the school climate,” he said. “It’s not a place to get diagnosed. It’s a place to share your story, and not just for kids with mental illness.”
In a short time, the district initiative has yielded results, not the least of which is that mental health is now a topic of discussion for students and educators, Weber said.
“Mental health is no longer a taboo subject in this district,” he said. “The stigma is slowly starting to go away.”
Patty Ruth, a former School Board president who works for the Ozaukee County Public Health Department and is a member of the Character Counts mental health committee, said, “There is a stigma associated with mental illness, and it’s hard to know where it’s safe to speak up about it. I think it speaks volumes that the Port Washington-Saukville School District is a place where it is safe to do that.”
Grace Boylan, a 2015 Port High graduate and member of the mental health committee, told School Board members that she suffered in silence, assuming a “secret identity” to hide her mental illness from her peers.
“Now I enjoy sharing my story,” she said. “I like touching the lives of others.”
Weber said, “I’m convinced that when Grace was in high school, if we were as far along as we are now, she would have come forward and we would have been able to help her.”
Richard Thomas, a former Port Washington police chief who was instrumental in forming Character Counts of Port Washington-Saukville and serves on its mental health committee, said the district is making long-overdue strides in dealing with mental illness.
“For years we have had a very limited understanding of mental health issues, limited especially in terms of our response to them,” he said. “What is being done now is a model. I just don’t see it being done elsewhere in the state.”