You may have heard about the August 2015 Philippi school shooting that never was. A state trooper and a pastor talked a boy 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 awarded to three West Virginia counties last year. This is the first year of implementation.
“Many times we don’t know what to do after we find out the child is struggling so bringing that awareness and acknowledgement of different resources that are there to help and know how to get them there,” said Ingrida Barker. Barker is assistant superintendent of secondary education for McDowell County, one of three West Virginia counties to receive the grant.
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 (meaning counseling, therapy – both group and individual – and medication or hospitalization) 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 on how to recognize the signs of addiction or mental illness.
“Mental Health First Aid can be compared to CPR for mental health. And this is an 8-hour public education program that’s targeted towards folks that aren’t mental health professionals,” said Paula Fields, the coordinator of the Project AWARE grant for the WV Department of Education.
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. Encourage self-help.
“I think we are seeing the awareness of mental health issues and seeing the level of acceptance change,” said Barker. “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.
McDowell has been able to bridge the gap by providing services through partnerships with community health centers – mostly on an outpatient basis – and Marshall University which provides two graduate student counselors to facilitate group therapy.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.