By Brianna Campagna
Many people struggle with mental health issues on a daily basis, often wondering where to find help in their battles.
GS attempts to minimize the amount of stress that staff and students undergo by providing mental health services.
Health class is regularly taught in 10th grade alongside gym class. Health Teacher Mr. Patrick Hutchinson is one of the three teachers who teaches Health class at GS. The students spend one unit learning about mental health.
“Mental health is taught as our second unit of the year,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “We first talk about the way the brain communicates with itself, sends signals, and controls thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We go over eight common mental health disorders; what causes them, how they are treated, and examples of what those disorders look like in your everyday life. We then learn about how to treat these mental disorders. We also discuss two often overlooked but powerful influences on our mental health which are social media and nutrition.”
When Hutchinson is faced with students who are struggling, he offers a helping hand.
“I always recommend to my students to talk about any health issue they are having, especially mental health,” he said. “Saying it out loud can be a relief in itself, which is sometimes all they need to do. But talking to another person and finding out that they have similar feelings or that they have go through the same emotions can help so much to make that student feel like they are not weird, or alone, or sick.”
Hutchinson recommends that students talk to a trusted adult about issues they may be facing.
“I also strongly encourage students to talk to an adult, any adult,” he said. “Talking to a peer is great but when an adult is introduced to the problem, they often have more knowledge on how to seek advanced help.”
When it comes to seeking help, the school counselors are available as resources to students. School Counselor Mr. John Manley is one of two GS counselors. He often works with students whose last name starts with M-Z, but any student is permitted to see either counselor.
“I can meet with students and Mrs. Klipa and I both are qualified to meet with students to discuss concerns or issues that they may be experiencing,” Mr. Manley said. “We don’t diagnose. We don’t prescribe medication, but we are counselor educators.”
The best advice that Mr. Manley has to offer to students is to “come and talk.”
“The hardest part sometimes for students is to make that initial step into the office and be willing to talk about what’s going on and open up because that can be uncomfortable,” he said. “But we want students to feel comfortable enough to come and see us and to share if they’re experiencing some difficulties. We might not be able to fix all the problems, but it’s important to at least start that conversation.”
There is a mental health resource that was recently introduced to GSSD called Care Solace. This website is available to any family in the district and provides help for students of families struggling with mental health or substance abuse.
“The mental health service that is new to the district which we discuss [in health class] is Care Solace,” Hutchinson said. “It is for students, their families and district employees to help them access quality mental health support.”
The services provided by Care Solace are offered 24/7. Their hotline is 1(888)515-0595. Care Solace does not charge for their services, and confidentiality is ensured.
“It can help connect students and families to resources outside of the school and help them find a person that they can work with to get them connected to the most appropriate resources,” Manley said. “We also have resources within the school’s Student Assistance Program. We have a team of teachers who are trained who meet once a week to discuss if there are students that are experiencing difficulties and how we can get them connected to appropriate sources to help them.”
Mr. Manley, along with Superintendent Dr. Ken Bissell, has made efforts to publicize these resources. Alongside resources provided to students, there are resources provided to all GSSD staff.
“We have an Employee Assistance Program,” Dr. Bissell said. “Our EAP [Employee Assistance Program] is a 24/7 service where they can call into a 1(800) phone number and they can get immediate service to any counselor at any time. That can be a quick check in, or it can be something where they’re helping to get them set up with counseling services for an ongoing service with local providers. That is probably the biggest thing that we have.”
Bissell hopes to better educate teachers and staff on the resources available to them.
“Part of what we’re working with HUB International to do is to get that word out to more of our staff about the available opportunity,” he said. “We send out messages and reminders to the staff all the time about the Employee Assistance Program. But one thing that we’ve talked about as a county wide group is when do people need the information? They don’t need it when they’re just looking through an email. They need it when they need it.”
The healthcare provider for Westmoreland educational staff is Westmoreland County Healthcare Organization, which has recently released a website for more immediate access. Many different services are offered through the healthcare provider 24/7. Both newsletters and contact sources are available to the staff.
“What we’re finding out is we needed to find a way to give them the resources at hand,” Bissell said. “And that’s where in just this past month, September, we released a new website to provide all of the health care needs and provide the information for the EAP. If somebody has a child with a broken leg and they need to know information from their health care provider, they can get it there. Know that mental health services are a big piece of what is available at that website.”
Alongside what is provided with the Westmoreland County Healthcare Organization, the district plans to provide more training for staff in the district to deal with their own mental health struggles.
“We’re also looking into more of an in-depth training of how to train staffs minds, to connect the mind body experience because a lot of mental health is created through stress and trauma,” he said. “There’s not enough being talked about of stress in the workplace and teacher stress.”
The teacher training that Bissell is most excited for is Outdoor Odyssey, a leadership academy located in Boswell, PA.
“Our district leadership team is going to attend Outdoor Odyssey,” he said. “They will try to work through methods of connecting the mind and the body by coming up with productive ways to train [teachers] on how to get through stressful situations. It’s going to start with our leadership team. Then we’re going to start working through teacher teams, and eventually build that into getting more of our students to go through those leadership trainings.”
Many schools in PA receive money to fund mental health care in hopes of providing a comforting environment in the school setting.
“Across the state, 500 districts receive a minimum of $100,000 that should be going toward mental health care, and $100,000 that should be going to safety and security,” Bissell said. “There’s a lot of overlap between safety and security. A lot of safety comes from how we feel safe but if we don’t feel safe, then it doesn’t matter what [mental health] systems are in place, right? So, a lot of that comes to our mental health of how we’re dealing with the stress that creates a better feeling of safety. Addressing mental health, it’s taking those funds and providing training opportunities for staff and students of how do we better cope with stress, trauma and, and other issues.”
The end goal of providing students and staff mental health services at GSSD is to help everyone learn to cope with their stress.
“Everybody has different stresses for even the same situation,” Bissell said. “So, we’re trying to get everybody to learn how to handle that.”