DeKalb schools ask if students are mentally ready for classes to begin

11:14 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017 Atlanta Education News
A young student writes down ideas in a recent seminar on mental health. The beginning of school can be stressful on students and families. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

DeKalb County schools officials realize that returning  

to classes often means the return of anxiety and stress for students that can lead to problems as serious as depression and suicide, which is the second-leading cause of death for teenagers. 

That’s why the district hosted a mental wellness rally before school started for students and parents helped put some tools in their hands to make it through the school year. 

But getting students to see how serious issues like bullying are can be tough, especially by the time kids enter middle school. 

“The district’s focus is the whole child and social-emotional learning,” DeKalb County Schools Director of Student Support Services Deborah Sanders said. “That’s why we wanted to ask students if they are mentally ready to come back to school.”

The rally included workshops about bullying, feeling stressed out and transitioning from summer to school. While the DeKalb County Schools mental wellness rally wasn’t as well attended as its host had hoped, those who participated said they learned a lot about helping their students succeed emotionally. 

Anxiety affects more students aged 13 to 17 than depression and attention deficit disorders, clinical child psychologist Holly Middleton said. 

 “If we can address their mental illness in schools, we can do something about it,” Middleton said.

She encouraged parents to seek help first from a school counselor and then check in with a child’s pediatrician for an evaluation and possible referral to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for medication.

Churches often provide low-cost counseling and, if that isn’t an option, Middleton recommended parents call the Georgia Psychological Association.

It is important to be aware of possible problems and seek help, Middleton said.

Administrators see students most of the day, but it’s the parents who have to continue the conversations and stay engaged in their children’s struggles. 

In her workshop, “Anxiety, Depression and ADHD,” Middleton told a small group of parents and students that 17 Chamblee Charter High School students have committed suicide in the last 19 years. 

Officials know the problem is worsening, according to the GBI’s recent announcement that 20 teenagers had committed suicide in Georgia before the end of June.

Suicide rates among youth nationwide have risen 13 percent in the past 15 years and it is the second leading cause of death for 10- to 19-year-olds, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Georgia, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to 17-year-olds, behind motor vehicle accidents.

MORE: Answers elusive as youth suicides in Georgia rise sharply

Middleton is vice president of Chamblee Cares, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping schools spread awareness of mental health issues. 

“Undiagnosed, untreated and inadequately treated mental illnesses significantly interfere with a student’s ability to learn, to grow and to develop,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness states on its website.

And because students spend so much time in school, NAMI believes teachers and staff have a great opportunity and obligation to help.

Schools can’t address every need a student has, Sanders said.

While some parents call for more recess and less homework, schools’ curriculum won’t always allow for it. 

Middleton said teachers can alleviate some stress by providing “no homework breaks” and offer major tests on different days than Friday.

Sanders suggests parents take away screens and encourage kids to get involved in extracurricular activities, which promotes better physical and mental health.

“We’re trying to equip the parents to be aware of symptoms,” Sanders said. “And when they are aware, there are places they can go for help.”

Informing parents is a first step. Reaching out comes next, but engaging teenagers is often tricky. Especially with hot topics like bullying.

Dhanni Smith and her brother Dharren Smith sat in the lobby aloofly finishing their sodas as their aunt decided which workshop they’d attend. She dragged the rising seventh and eighth graders to the bullying workshop.

The Champion Middle School students said other students don’t recognize bullying as a crime. “They tell us if you see it report it,” Dhanni Smith said. 

Her brother, Dharrin, admitted tattling doesn’t work because, “The kids don’t care and don’t see bullying as a crime.”

If he saw someone making fun of someone else, Dharrin said he’d just away rather than report it. 

Quentin Fretwell, a retired DeKalb County Safe Schools Coordinator, taught a group of about 25 parents and students how to recognize bullies, henchmen and “upstanders,” who tell school officials about what happens when students are away from adults. 

Too often, parents don’t know what goes on in the schoolyard, Fretwell said. “The procedures for school officials are all based off allegations, so if students don’t speak up there’s little that can be done by administrators, he said.”

Opening a dialogue with children helps, parent Quyionah Wingfield found out. 

Her daughters dealt with bullying last year when they changed from a school close to Lithonia to Laurel Ridge Elementary School in Decatur.  

“They went from a predominantly black school to a school that was more ethnically diverse,” she said. 

Wingfield started to see just how depressed and upset her daughters were when they came home from school crying after being teased about their hair. “I didn’t know that they were dealing with that,” she said.

But when Wingfield engaged with her girls and listened, they opened up about their struggles.

Wingfield broke through to her daughters with dance, she said.  “I went from not really engaging much to fully engaging and she started to talk to me because we had something in common,” Wingfield said. 

The single mother of two said she found success when she started listening, more than trying to find solutions.  

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