Mental health and suicide awareness education could become requirements in schools

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Iowa could establish a new requirement to teach mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

State lawmakers started debating a bill last month to make it a part of health classes in public and private high schools.

It would also require students to learn coping skills as well.

An amended version in the Iowa Senate this week added seventh and eighth grades.

Illinois Representatives are also considering a bill with similar requirements. 

In the Quad Cities, it’s seen as a critical move in the mental health community.

When Christine Schmidt lost her 12-year-old and seventh-grade daughter Morgan in April 2014, Christine told Local 4 News it was vital for her to speak out and bring awareness to this issue through her daughter’s story.

“The fact that Morgan was a person. She was a young girl. I share with them all the personal little things about Morgan. She like Pop-Tarts and romantic movies and scary rides and all of those things because kids can identify with that.” Morgan’s mother Christine Schmidt said, “They can identify that Morgan, she was indeed a person. She was someone who, you know, was smart and funny and love to hang out with her friends, a straight-A student and played sports all of those things. I want to humanize her; she’s not just a statistic.”

The story of Morgan is one her mother Christine has been sharing for nearly five years to help others.

Schmidt said, “Educate the public, educate children and parents on the warning signs of suicide, depression, anxiety things like that.”

As lawmakers look at this new requirement, Schmidt told Local 4 it’s an important step to get the message out to many more students and teachers. 

“Our teachers, our schools. They really are on the frontlines of trying to help take care of our children,” said Schmidt.

Part of the reason is to make a difference, there’s a greater awareness needed. 

“I didn’t know about it until I had to, unfortunately. I think if we can really normalize this, talk about it, educate,” Schmidt said. 

At Vera French, Clinical Director Chris McCormick Pries said addressing stigma is a critical first step.

“That’s critical because often what prevents kids and adults from seeking treatment is their embarrassment and their fear of being stigmatized because they’re talking about emotional or mental issues,” said Vera French Clinical Director Chris McCormick Pries.

She said this classroom learning could be key to not just notice the symptoms and impacts but let kids know there are resources.

McCormick Pries said, “We really want them to see that there’s a pathway into treatment that can be very helpful and that pathway often begins right in school.”

She said when it comes to mental illness, the sooner, the better.

McCormick Pries said, “Early Intervention is always better than delayed intervention so if we help kids recognize the signs and symptoms of a psychiatric disorder or mental illness, it allows them to see those things earlier both in themselves and in their friends.”

For Schmidt, it’s also important to make sure students know the methods to work through.

“There are ways that you can get through that. It won’t be so overwhelming, and I think that they will be apt to reach out for assistance and help and just to talk about it,” said Schmidt. 

By introducing this training, it also goes beyond the school’s halls. 

“Standardized this and offer it to everyone in school it becomes not only good for the students who are receiving the information but it becomes a very positive public health issue,’ said McCormick Pries.

Part of the clinical director’s hope is students can then also help address a big need providers face. 

McCormick Pries said, “Our greatest challenge in providing Mental Health Services in this community and quite frankly in every community throughout this country is finding people who have an interest in becoming social workers, psychologists, nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians and psychiatrist in helping people deal with psychiatric disorders.”

And for Christine, moving the bill forward is raising up a four letter word. 

Schmidt said, “That will give so many other people hope.”

What the mother also wants to see is parents take an interest in this as well. 

“I encourage all parents to partner with the schools, to partner with the different resources and different places that are available,” said Schmidt.

That’s partly because there’s always a need to have this conversation.

“With any age, there’s an appropriate way to talk about self-harm, also to talk about how to manage your feelings,” said Schmidt. “I have a 2-year-old granddaughter, and she can’t completely talk about everything right now, but she can get really frustrated because her fingers aren’t working the way she wants to so just even talk to her about calming down. We’ll work through this, you know. There’s an appropriate way to talk about it at every stage.”

McCormick Pries told Local 4 News there are already a number of evidence-based resources schools can use to base this education on including mental health first aid for youths. 

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