With students in turmoil, US teachers train in mental health – The Denver Post

SAN FRANCISCO — As Benito Luna-Herrera teaches his 7th grade social studies classes, he is on alert for signs of inner turmoil. And there is so much of it these days.

One of his 12-year-old students felt his world was falling apart. Distance learning had upended her friendships. Things with her boyfriend were verging on violent. Her home life was stressful. “I’m just done with it,” the girl told Luna-Herrera during the pandemic, and shared a detailed plan to kill herself.

Another student was typically a big jokester and full of confidence. But one day she told him she didn’t want to live anymore. She, too, had a plan in place to end her life.

Luna-Herrera is just one teacher, in one Southern California middle school, but stories of students in distress are increasingly common around the country. The silver lining is that special training helped him know what to look for and how to respond when he saw the signs of a mental emergency.

Since the pandemic started, experts have warned of a mental health crisis facing American children. That is now playing out at schools in the form of increased childhood depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, fights and thoughts of suicide at alarming levels, according to interviews with teachers, administrators, education officials and mental health experts.

In low-income areas, where adverse childhood experiences were high before the pandemic, the crisis is even more acute and compounded by a shortage of school staff and mental health professionals.

Luna-Herrera, who teaches in a high poverty area of ​​the Mojave Desert, is among a small but growing number of California teachers to take a course called Youth Mental Health First Aid. It teaches adults how to spot warning signs of mental health risks and substance abuse in children, and how to prevent a tragedy.

The California Department of Education funds the program for any school district requesting it, and the pandemic has accelerated moves to make such courses a requirement. The training program is operated by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing and available in every state.

“I don’t want to read about another teenager where there were warning signs and we looked the other way,” said Sen. Anthony Portantino, author of a bill that would require all California middle and high schools to train at least 75% of employees in behavioral health. “Teachers and school staff are on the front lines of a crisis, and need to be trained to spot students who are suffering.”

Experts say while childhood depression and anxiety had been on the rise for years, the pandemic’s unrelenting stress and grievance amplified the problems, particularly for those already experiencing mental health issues who were cut off from counselors and other school resources during distance learning.

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