School safety conference: How mental health first aid can make a difference

Education

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (Nexstar) — Janet Paleo says she had a suicide plan before she was five years old. 

“Most people think children don’t have those thoughts,” she said. “They do. They don’t say suicide. They say things like, ‘My mom told me if I play out in the street, I’d get hit by a car.’” 

Now the director of recovery-based services at the Texas Council for Community Centers, she stresses the importance of mental health first aid training. It is a national program. The eight-hour course teaches people how to identify, understand and recognize mental illnesses and substance use disorders. 

“Mental heath first aid training gives you that confidence when you walk by and you see someone who is struggling, who may be crying, who seems not quite themselves,” she said. “Mental health first aid says ‘This is what you say, this is how you interact,’ and yes, it is your business.” 

Paleo shared her story with educators, school officials and school-based law enforcement members at the Texas School Safety Conference in Corpus Christi. 

The theme of the conference is “School Safety: A Shared Responsibility.” Speakers from across the country will share information over the next four days about evidence-based practices and those in attendance will have networking opportunities with other colleagues.  

Paleo hopes mental health first aid will become as common as CPR training.  

“The earlier we take care of these problems, the earlier we recognize them, the better the outcomes are,” she said. 

Deputy Hector Lerma, who has been a school resource officer for 14 years, took the mental health first aid training about a year ago. 

“We’re not as well trained as we think we are to deal with a mental health crisis,” he said. “This training definitely helps in that area.” 

Lerma says prior to the training, he “didn’t know how to approach the situation or how to even begin talking to someone who is having a mental health crisis.” 

“I’ve been through mental health classes before, but they brought a lot of new information to the table and resources we can use to deal with a mental health crisis,” he said.

He encourages all school districts and school-based law enforcement to participate in this training. 

Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott signed three mental health and school safety bills. Senate Bill 11, which was added on to another bill, forms the Texas Child Mental Health Consortium. The consortium aims to provide mental health services such as counseling to students. House Bill 18 will increase mental health training for school employees. Students will also have an opportunity to learn about mental health issues themselves. Gov. Abbott also signed House Bill 1387, which removes the cap on the number of school marshals on each campus.  

“The Texas School Safety Center shares the goal of the Office of the Governor and the Texas Education Agency of ensuring that schools have in place ‘immediate and long-term plans aimed at prevention and protection,’” the center’s event website page states. “Achieving this goal is a shared responsibility that requires collaboration among all stakeholders.”  

The conference goes until Thursday, June 27. 

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